Tunisian Foreign Minister Jhinaoui seeks more support from Washington
Washington - US President Donald Trump’s administration is in the process of defining its strategy for dealing with the many crises in the Middle East and North Africa. Trump has met with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz with Washington visits planned by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Amid this whirlwind, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui visited the US capital for meetings with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and members of Congress. Clearly, Tunisia does not want to be left out of the administration’s regional calculations — and for good reason.
Although not as powerful militarily and economically as other states in the region, “Tunisia could be a model of a country that is capable of social resilience in the face of the scourge of terrorism and extremism”, Jhinaoui said at the US Institute of Peace (USIP).
Tunisia is the country where the “Arab spring” started in 2011 and is the only country to achieve the political aims of that regional uprising — a functioning democracy. However, as Jhinaoui said, “the Tunisian experiment is still fragile”. He was referring to economic struggles Tunisia faces as well as the threat from extremism, made all the more acute by the disorder in neighbouring Libya.
One of the items on Jhinaoui’s agenda was to secure US support for the Tunis declaration, an accord reached in February by the foreign ministers of Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt that calls for a comprehensive and inclusive political agreement in Libya.
Without an end to turmoil in Libya, Tunisia will find it difficult to ensure its own security. “An explosion in Libya,” Jhinaoui warned in his address at USIP, “will affect everybody, including the United States.”
Libya was the focus of Jhinaoui’s talks with US Senator John McCain, R-Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as with Tillerson.
Jhinaoui’s visit was about more than verbal support. The week he arrived coincided with the Trump administration’s submission of its proposed 2017 budget to Congress, a budget that calls for drastic cuts in US foreign aid. While specific countries are not mentioned — other than Israel, which was assured that its aid would not be cut — there is no doubt that US aid to Tunisia would be reduced if the president’s budget is adopted by Congress.
During the Obama administration, Tunisia received US military and counterterrorism assistance that was “vital”, Jhinaoui said, and “improved our effectiveness in the fight against terrorism”. In 2016, the Obama administration provided Tunisia with approximately $100 million in military equipment and counterterrorism training.
As the Islamic State (ISIS) faces collapse in Iraq and is under heavy pressure in Syria, Tunisian officials fear that many of the several thousand Tunisians fighting with the jihadist group will return home with malicious designs. “We know that they will be very harmful if they come back to Tunisia,” Jhinaoui told the Washington Times.
Equally important to Tunisia is US economic assistance, which has amounted to about $300 million since 2011. During that period, Tunisia has lost billions of dollars in tourism revenue due to two high-profile, ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks as well as general regional instability. Although Tunisia represents the only successful democratic experiment in the Arab world, it has not proven to its people that democracy can produce economic growth and significant employment.
These two threats — domestic terrorism by returning jihadis and continued economic stagnation — could jeopardise Tunisia’s democracy. Jhinaoui’s message was clear: If the Tunisian experiment is to succeed and serve as a positive model for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, it will require more international support. “I don’t want to talk about cuts in aid but increases in aid,” Jhinaoui said.
Whether Jhinaoui’s message was heard will not be known until Congress votes on the foreign aid budget and the administration decides how much it will devote to Tunisia’s security and economic needs. So far, the Trump administration has focused on how to fight the bad actors in the region, of which there are many. The goal of Jhinaoui’s mission was to emphasise that supporting the good guys is equally important. Tunisia may be small but the stakes are huge.