US pledges support to Tunisia at Strategic Dialogue
Tunis - US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged support for Tunisia to strengthen its economy and upgrade its security and military capabilities, but said the “world’s eyes” are on the North African country as it still strives to meet challenges.
Compared to the turmoil and violence that has swept many Middle Eastern and North African countries since the “Arab spring” uprisings starting in 2011, Tunisia has emerged as a relative success story with free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2014.
Tunisia is “a counterpoint to those who assert that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy”, Kerry said during the second session of US-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue on November 13th.
Kerry and Tunisian Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche declared in a statement “their shared commitment to promoting a secure, integrated and prosperous region through the warm partnership shared between the peoples of the United States and Tunisia”.
After meeting Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Washington in May, US President Barack Obama granted Tunisia major non- NATO ally status in recognition of the country’s democratic progress.
Since 2011, Washington has provided Tunisia with about $700 million of economic, development and security assistance.
Kerry stressed US support for Tunisia in “addressing the challenges facing it in Libya”. Baccouche also reiterated Tunisia’s concerns about its next-door neighbour.
“Libya is a big cause for worries as terrorism spreads there and where terrorists are arming Tunisian youth to send them fighting in zones of conflicts and who sometimes return to threaten Tunisia’s security,” Baccouche said.
Analysts in Tunis said Kerry’s co-chairing the Strategic Dialogue was meant as a strong signal of Washington’s eagerness to see Tunisia succeed in its political experiment amid continuing upheaval in the Middle East.
Kerry obliquely prodded the leaders of the small North African country to bolster political stability and speed up reforms, telling his audience “the world’s eyes are on Tunisia”.
He also hinted that Tunisia had still a way to go to win the sustained trust of the international business community. “Investment to flow in Tunisia needs investors having confidence in democracy, confidence in the laws, confidence in bankruptcy laws,” Kerry said.
He pointed out the United States planned to move forward with links between Tunisian universities and Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas A&M University in high-tech and agricultural research in addition to 12 programmes to enhance research and education exchanges between Tunisian and US faculties and institutions.
The United States has allocated more than $25 million to 2018 to support opportunities for young Tunisians to study in the United States.
On the eve of the dialogue, officials from both governments attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a police academy modernisation project, a long-term, multimillion-dollar plan to renovate the training curriculum and physical facilities for the Tunisian National Police and National Guard.
Kerry also said the United States was working to secure resources to improve the ability of Tunisia to deter, detect and interdict weapons of mass destruction and related materials that might come across Tunisia’s border with Libya.
He said the United States agreed on a declaration of intent regarding a $500 million loan guarantee for Tunisia.
The United States is seeking to promote development of the private sector in Tunisia with the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund (TAEF), seeded with $60 million in US assistance.
Kerry said the US-funded Business Reform and Competitiveness Project created 6,564 sustainable private sector jobs in 100 Tunisian businesses.
He said the two governments have set a body on economic cooperation to help Tunisia boost economic development and ultimately “uproot radicalism” by offering job opportunities and expanded prosperity to the population, especially its frustrated and impatient youth.
Kerry announced the launch of US-Tunisia Joint Economic Commission, which will supplement the US-Tunisian Strategic Dialogue, the Joint Military Commission and the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement as centrepieces of US policy to help Tunisia.
“With over $1.4 billion in trade in 2014, the United States already enjoys an important economic relationship with Tunisia and the Joint Economic Commission will facilitate further growth,” a Tunisia-US statement pointed out.
The next session of the Joint Economic Commission is set for Washington in the spring of 2016. The next meeting of the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council is scheduled for March 2016 also in Washington.