Calls in United States for more aid to Tunisia
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.”