Tunisian president’s visit offers hope in Washington
WASHINGTON - The timing of the historic visit to the United States by Tunisia’s first democratically elected president could not have been better. Washington was reeling from the news that the Islamic State (ISIS) had overrun the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the latest episode in a string of bad tidings from the Arab world.
Enter Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab spring”, and one of the few places in the Middle East and North Africa where Washington sees a glimmer of hope.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi appeared to grasp the situation well. “We need the support of the US and maybe the US needs Tunisia, too,” he said during a White House meeting with US President Barack Obama.
The unprecedented attention that the Tunisian president and his delegation received and the calibre of meetings they had in Washington reflected the hope the United States has pinned on Tunisia and its democratic transition as a model for the region.
Obama offered both material and symbolic support to show his commitment to Tunisia and its nascent democracy. He even co-wrote an op-ed with Caid Essebsi in the Washington Post — unprecedented for a US president with an Arab leader. At the White House, Obama expressed faith in Tunisia’s experience and promise. “The United States believes in Tunisia, is invested in its success and will work as a steady partner for years to come,” he said.
Obama offered Tunisia increased economic assistance “so that ordinary Tunisians can feel the concrete benefits of a change to a more open and competitive economy”. He specifically pledged to provide Tunisia with $138 million in assistance for US Fiscal Year 2016, of which $62 million would finance military purchases. This amount is nearly double what the United States is providing in the current fiscal year. He also offered a $500 million loan-guarantee programme to bolster economic reforms in Tunisia.
On the security front, the leaders discussed the region’s chronic instability, especially in Tunisia’s neighbour Libya, and its potential effects on Tunisia.
Obama spoke of the importance of continuing to “partner effectively” in efforts to stabilise Libya “so that we don’t have a failed state and a power vacuum that ends up affecting the situation in Tunisia, as well”.
The most important announcement was Obama’s intention to designate Tunisia as a “major non- NATO ally” of the United States. Few countries have gained that status, which is largely symbolic but does include tangible benefits, such as making it easier and less expensive for Tunisia to acquire US weapons and equipment.
The two sides signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that highlighted American commitment to strengthen Tunisia’s “democratic path” by helping it achieve greater economic growth.
Mohsen Marzouk, the Tunisian president’s adviser for political affairs, said the agreements with the United States would give the relationship between the two countries “a new horizon”. US Secretary of State John Kerry said he saw the MOU as an important message. The memorandum, he said, “reflects the breadth and the depth of the commitment that we are making”.