Tunisian Foreign Minister Jhinaoui seeks more support from Washington

Sunday 19/03/2017
Help wanted. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) meets with Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui at the US State Department in Washington, on March 13th. (AP)

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.