President Barack Obama hosted Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi at the White House, where they held talks. Ahead of their May 21 meeting, The Washington Post published an opinion editorial, jointly written by the two leaders. Excerpts follow.
Helping Tunisia Realize its Democratic Promise
Amid the turmoil that so often dominates the headlines, it can be tempting to think that all of North Africa and the Middle East is gripped by disorder. But in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, democracy and pluralism are taking root …
More than four years after a young street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the daily humiliations of an oppressive government, sparking the protests that ended decades of dictatorship, Tunisia shows that democracy is not only possible but also necessary in North Africa and the Middle East …
Our two nations now have an unprecedented opportunity to forge an enduring partnership based on shared interests and values. Indeed, since the revolution, the United States has committed more than $570 million, and supported two major loan guarantees, to help Tunisians pursue critical political, economic and security reforms. Over the past year alone, the United States has worked to double its assistance to Tunisia, with $134 million proposed for next year. This is not charity…
The United States Can Do More to Bolster Tunisia
As President Barack Obama surveys the chaos in the Middle East, he would do well to devote more resources to the only country in the region that appears to have a real chance of consolidating a transition to democracy from authoritarian rule.
Since the so-called Arab Spring began in late 2010, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen have regressed back to authoritarianism or dissolved into civil war, while Iraq struggles to overcome sectarianism and the threat of the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
So far, Tunisia, where the first revolt took place, is “the exception but we hope we can be the model,” its president, Beji Caid Essebsi, told a packed audience in Washington on Wednesday on his first official visit to the U.S. since winning elections late last year.
Benefitting from homogeneity, a relatively strong civil society and the willingness of all major political forces – among them, an Islamist party – to share power, Tunisia has successfully held a series of democratic elections since overthrowing strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
But the country faces major challenges, including terrorism fed in part by the collapse of order in next-door Libya, and high unemployment even among educated youth. For its size, Tunisia sends more foreign fighters than any other country to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq – a reflection, Essebsi said, of a lack of economic opportunity at home.
Essebsi, who at 88 is from the generation that campaigned for Tunisia’s independence from France, is an interesting choice as chief executive.
Waving away an aide who put a prepared speech in front of him at the U.S. Institute of Peace, he meandered a bit and occasionally repeated himself or got a number wrong, but also conveyed a sense of authenticity as someone who, as he noted, “was there” when Tunisia became independent in 1956.
“I’m not that young,” Essebsi said, stating the obvious. “I’ve lived all these periods so I know what I’m talking about.”
The Tunisian leader, who met with President Obama Thursday, was careful not to make specific demands of the United States in public but acknowledged in response to a question that “a little bit more” in U.S. aid would be welcome.
“The U.S. is helping Tunisia in fighting terrorism, but we want stronger cooperation,” Essebsi said. The collapse of the Libyan state has saddled Tunisia with more than a million refugees, a hard-to-defend border and, according to Essebsi, economic losses of $5.7 billion due to vanished jobs and investment.
The U.S. has provided Tunisia with $570 million since 2011, according to State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, of which $175 million is security assistance. For the next fiscal year, the Obama administration has doubled its request for annual aid to Tunisia to $134.4 million.
While the increase is welcome, it is tiny compared to the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. assistance to Egypt, where hopes for democracy and human rights have been repeatedly dashed. Just a few days ago, a Cairo court sentenced Mohamed Morsi – the only freely elected president in Egyptian history – to death for the “crime” of escaping unlawful detention in 2011.
Egypt has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, jailing thousands. Tunisia has a coalition government that includes the Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist group.
Democracy advocates, such as the Project for Middle East Democracy, have urged the Obama administration to increase aid to Tunisia and sign a multi-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) as the U.S. does routinely with Egypt, Israel and Jordan. Such an MOU would facilitate government planning and encourage foreign and domestic investment in the Tunisian economy, where nearly half the 600,000 unemployed have college degrees, according to Essebsi. Others have recommended a free-trade agreement.
The Tunisian leader acknowledged on Wednesday that the U.S. – which he called “the spinal cord of the whole world” — “has other problems and other people to worry about.”
The United States is in the midst of a difficult struggle in Iraq and Syria to contain and push back the Islamic State. In Syria, the group has consolidated control over the ancient city of Palmyra, threatening priceless artifacts.
Meanwhile, the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, last weekend is the latest sign that Iraq may not hold together as a unified state.
The more successful Tunisia is in consolidating its democracy and restoring its economy, the fewer foreign fighters it may generate to go to Iraq and Syria. A flourishing Tunisia would also show that democracy is possible in the Arab world.
A country of only 11 million people with no oil resources but a proud and ancient history, Tunisia is not in a position to dictate to Washington what its level of support should be.
Essebsi, pounding the podium on Wednesday with surprising force for an octogenarian, said, “I was elected by the Tunisian people and I guarantee the success of this [democratic] experiment,” with or without foreign assistance.
But he acknowledged that his mission would easier to accomplish with more help from Tunisia’s friends.