Calls in United States for more aid to Tunisia

Friday 30/10/2015
Bipartisan support

WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of ex­perts and former US government officials sent a letter to members of Congress calling for increased US assistance to Tunisia. The 114 signatories of the letter in­clude former members of Congress, former ambassadors, a former World Bank president and numer­ous scholars.

The letter praised Tunisia for “re­markable progress” since the 2011 uprising but says that the country faces daunting economic and se­curity threats and “its democratic gains remain fragile”.

The letter calls on Congress to provide the increased assistance for Tunisia that US President Barack Obama pledged last May during the visit to Washington by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Specifically, Obama requested that Congress increase Tunisia’s economic assistance in 2016 to $55 million, compared to $30 million this year, and more than double the level of military and security assis­tance to $62.5 million. Combined with other assistance programmes, the total assistance package pro­posed by the Obama administration was $134.4 million.

The US House of Representatives granted Obama’s request for the money. US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and chair­woman of the Middle East Subcom­mittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued strongly in sup­port for the increase in aid.

“We need to invest in Tunisia’s future if we want to ensure that the future will be a democratic one,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a hearing in July. “They deserve our support and, with that support, they could one day be the model for other countries in the region.”

But the US Senate approved only $86.9 million for Tunisia. While many senators spoke favourably about Tunisia, the Republican lead­ership argued that the administra­tion could find additional funds for Tunisia on an ad hoc basis, perhaps by transferring funds designated for Egypt.

The two houses of Congress must reconcile the bills’ differences — closing the nearly $50 million gap between the House and Senate measures — and present a single bill to the president for signing.

In calling on Congress to grant the full administration request, the signatories of the letter said that “providing increased aid will help Tunisia address youth unemploy­ment, implement vital economic and security reforms and strength­en its nascent democratic institu­tions. In addition, increasing as­sistance will demonstrate stronger US support for Tunisia and enable the United States to lead its interna­tional partners to bolster their own commitments to Tunisia.”

Among the letter’s more promi­nent signatories are William Burns, former deputy secretary of State; former US senators Richard Lugar, Joseph Lieberman and Tom Dasch­le; six former US ambassadors to Tunisia; and former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz.

The letter emphasised that “this is an important opportunity to fol­low through on US rhetoric and demonstrate that the United States will continue to invest in Tuni­sia’s future” and concluded: “We strongly urge you to fully grant the requested $134.4 million in bilat­eral assistance to Tunisia, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the country as it continues the difficult but momentous task of consolidat­ing the Arab world’s first successful transition to democracy.”

US Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he was not happy that the Senate reduced Tunisia’s aid. “We made a bipartisan commit­ment to do everything that Tunisia needed to maintain its democratic path and then we voted for a for­eign aid budget that did not fund the president’s request,” Murphy complained at a recent hearing. “There seems to be a separation be­tween our rhetoric and what we are able to deliver.”

The letter, along with the desire by senators such as Murphy to re­vise their bill, are optimistic signs that Tunisia will receive the full aid package as requested by Obama.

A prominent Washington lobby­ist, who wished to remain anony­mous, told The Arab Weekly: “Tu­nisia continues to be the favourite Arab state and it would be very surprising to see any action that did not fully support them, with the one possible exception of a generic across the board budget cut that no one escapes.”