US Congress divided on aid levels to Tunisia
Washington - A soon-to-be released poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) indicated that Tunisians “are not in a great mood”. And this was before they heard the news that the US Senate voted to cut $50 million from the $134.4 million that US President Barack Obama’s administration requested for Tunisia for the fiscal year 2016. The House of Representatives had approved the administration’s request.
Tunisians might think the supportive rhetoric they heard during President Beji Caid Essebsi’s visit in May had evaporated and that, in the words of a Tunisian diplomat in Washington, “Tunisia’s success is taken for granted in the world, especially in the US.”
But the story is not that simple. American support for Tunisia has not vanished, either within the administration or in Congress. Support was very visible during a July 14th hearing on Tunisia in the House Foreign Affairs Committee when the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said “the stability of Tunisia and the viability of its democratic transition is not only strategically important to the US and the region but to all of us who believe in democracy”.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., echoed the sentiment, saying it is in the national security interests of the United States to assist Tunisia militarily, economically, politically and socially. He lauded Tunisia’s progress since 2011.
IRI President Mark Green, who testified at the House hearing, said “While we cannot and should not choose Tunisia’s path ourselves, where a country has taken courageous steps to shape its own future — a future that is democratic and which respects human liberty — I believe it is in our vital interests to come forward and support them”.
Bipartisan support was reflected in the House vote to approve the full $134.4 million in assistance requested by the administration, a $50 million increase from the previous fiscal year.
But the Senate approved only $86.9 million for Tunisia. Both houses of Congress must agree on the amount before the legislation becomes law.
The Senate’s vote was not received well by Tunisia’s friends in Washington, especially democracy promotion advocates who hope the Tunisian model will show the way for other states.
William Lawrence, president of the American Tunisian Association (ATA), said the Senate was sending “the wrong message at the wrong time and in the wrong way”.
But observers said the Senate’s action has nothing to do with declining support for Tunisia and everything to do with domestic American politics.
Everybody you speak with in Washington insists that the cut is due “primarily for budgetary reasons”, said Stephen McInerney, executive director for the Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED). But he said he was surprised that “no one on the appropriations committee in the Senate took the initiative and advocated for Tunisia to get what it needed”.
So the “default was to give the same amount as last year”, he said, adding that he considers it an “oversight”.
McInerney and others said they find it hard to believe that the Senate could not find the additional funds for Tunisia. He suggested trimming Egypt’s aid, which totals $1.3 billion, to meet Tunisia’s need. He said doing so would be “taking away from a state that is moving in the wrong direction”.
Although Tunisia has many supporters in the Senate, none spoke out openly in favour of the aid increase.
The issue will come up again in the autumn when the House and Senate must reach agreement on the aid amount. Already, Tunisia’s friends — as well as its ambassador in Washington — are lobbying senators. In the meantime, there are concerns about Tunisia expressed in Congress, even by the North African country’s supporters.
Deutch, for example, said “Tunisia cannot complete its democratic transition and fully stabilise if the economy does not grow” and called for a more open economy.
McInerney said that fighting terrorism must not lead to rolling back progress in democracy and freedoms. He pointed to “alarming steps” in Tunisia’s new anti-terrorism law. Deutch agreed, saying he hopes that Tunisia “does not sacrifice its progress in the name of security”.
The next few months will be critical in determining the level of support Tunisia receives from the United States and this depends on the steps that its government takes. The democratic transition in Tunisia must be perceived as moving forward in order for the support to swell and the aid to flow.