By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Congress is rushing to Tunisia’s defense as President Donald Trump tries to slash foreign aid across North Africa.
The State Department has proposed cutting bilateral security and economic assistance by 67% for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, despite the threats looming over the world’s youngest democracy. US lawmakers are having none of it, with House and Senate appropriators opting to keep the Tunisia aid package constant at $165.4 million.
"The Committee notes the important role the countries of North Africa play with respect to global security and stability," the House Appropriations panel wrote in guidance accompanying their bill. "Therefore the bill includes a new provision requiring a strategy from the Secretary of State on how diplomatic engagement and assistance will be prioritized for these countries. The Committee recommendation rejects the proposed cuts to Tunisia and Morocco.”
Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States, Faycal Gouia, said he is confident lawmakers will prevail.
“Since Tunisia has many friends in Congress, I think assistance will not be cut for Tunisia and Tunisia will continue to benefit from the US assistance because it is very important for us," Gouia told Al-Monitor in a July interview at his office.
The ambassador pointed out that Trump's budget blueprint cuts aid across the board, and doesn't single out Tunisia for any ideological reason. That makes it more likely the cuts can be avoided.
"Tunisia was not the target,” Gouia said. “They did it with every country and all partners of the United States except four countries [so] we don’t think that the Trump administration was targeting Tunisia.”
To help its cause, Tunisia's government and its friends in Washington have successfully crafted a narrative over the past six years that Washington should embrace the sole success story coming out of the Arab Spring. While the government itself has not hired any lobbyists, the powerful Islamist party Ennahda has been making the same case to Washington since 2014 via Burson-Marsteller.
Ennahda, a partner in Tunisia’s current coalition government, paid the PR firm $310,000 last year (up from $147,000 in 2015) to try to temper Washington’s blanket antipathy toward political Islamists. Much of that effort has gone toward boosting US support for Tunisia’s democratic transition, which has allowed the Islamists to come out of hiding and play a public role.
Tunisia’s other friends in Washington include the Center for Islam and Democracy, a think tank close to Ennahda, the nonprofit Project on Middle East Democracy and the Tunisian American Young Professionals. And Prime Minister Youssef Chahed himself stopped by Washington in July to lobby Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis against the aid cuts, warning of adverse security consequences should the US curtail its military assistance.
“Any discontinuation will send the wrong message to those terrorist groups,” Chahed told Al-Monitor during his July visit. “Any discontinuation will immediately … burden Tunisia at this vulnerable point.”
Trump’s budget request also proposes slashing the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which provides security aid to North Africa, from $12.2 million to $7.9 million. And it eliminates military aid for Tunisia despite the instability on the eastern border with its war-torn neighbor, Libya.
The House bill, by contrast, preserves $65 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Tunisia while rejecting the Trump administration’s bid to transition FMF assistance from grants to loans. Senate appropriators, meanwhile, have asked the Trump administration to look into negotiating a multi-year Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia that would put US assistance on firmer long-term footing. Gouia also stressed the importance of the $79 million Congress is preserving in economic aid to Tunisia, noting that it contributes to creating more jobs for young people in a country struggling with dangerously high youth unemployment.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent US foreign assistance agency, agrees with that assessment and announced in December 2016 that Tunisia was eligible for funding to “encourage economic growth and reduce poverty.” While the compact remains under development, Minister of Industry and Commerce Zied Laadhari has said Tunisia and the MCC have agreed to negotiate a four-year, $400 million grant.
Notably, Chahed chose the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that heavily influenced the Trump administration’s austere budget proposal, as the venue to deliver his message. Gouia confirmed that the choice of venue wasn’t a coincidence.
The Heritage Foundation, Gouia said, “flows to the new administration. So maybe we said to ourselves let’s get there to have the attention, to bring attention to the Tunisian speech and narrative.”
In addition to securing congressional guarantees on foreign assistance, Gouia said Chahed also discussed North African peace and security as well as US-Tunisia economic relations. The Tunisian Embassy is notably in contact with the US Trade Representative in hopes of building support for a potential free trade agreement between the two countries.
Chahed also attempted to lure foreign investors to Tunisia at an appearance at the US Chamber of Commerce. He also visited the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to tout the country’s economic reforms, which Tunisia has used to secure multiple US-backed loan guarantees over the past five years.
“When he met, especially with members of Congress, he raised many issues, among them, of course, US assistance,” Gouia noted. “And he received a lot of support from both the Senate and the House.”
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