Protesters shout slogans during a march demanding equal inheritance rights for women, in Tunis, Tunisia, March 10, 2018.
Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

Trump yields to Congress on need to help tiny Tunisia


Tunisia and its allies in Congress are starting to get through to the Donald Trump administration on the value of standing by the fledgling democracy as it struggles to survive in an unstable neighborhood.

After getting hammered last year for trying to end military aid to Tunis, the State Department has reversed course and is asking for $54.5 million in security assistance and $40 million in economic aid, up 73% over last year’s request. That still pales, however, in comparison to the $165.4 million in the Senate’s pending foreign aid bill for fiscal year 2019 and the record $205.4 million sought by the House.

“I was … pleased to see the administration reverse course from last year’s request and allocate additional funds for Tunisia,” House Middle East and North Africa panel chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said in her opening statement at a June hearing on the administration’s budget priorities. Still, she added, “it falls far short of what is required, and far short of what Congress has appropriated. Tunisia’s stability and Tunisia's success are of vital importance to the United States and the region — failing to ensure its viability would be a terrible mistake.”

While the Tunisian government itself hasn’t hired any lobbyists in Washington, ruling coalition member Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, has retained the services of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller since 2014 to help convince Washington of its democratic bona fides and push for more aid. The firm was paid $105,000 last year, according to an Al-Monitor review of lobbying filings.

“Tunisia continues to experience complex economic and security challenges, and we have played an important role as a strategic partner to the US in the fight against international terrorism — an issue that threatens us all,” Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi is quoted as saying in a newsletter distributed by Burson-Marsteller.

Tunisia’s narrative as a unique Arab Spring success story worthy of support is also promoted by several friendly groups in Washington, including the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy, a think tank close to Ennahda, and the Tunisian American Young Professionals.

After the country held in May its first local elections since the 2011 revolution, the State Department issued a statement applauding Tunis for “an important step in the consolidation of its democracy” and vowing that the United States “continues to support Tunisia’s progress.” In another bout of welcome news, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent US foreign assistance agency, notified Congress in February that it had signed an $8 million grant with Tunis to develop a five-year compact starting as early as mid-2020.

The MCC estimates that the compact, which remains in the development stage, could amount to as much as $292 million. Its goals focus on improving the country’s business climate through pro-market reforms and addressing water scarcity in the interior regions through better management.

“Tunisia has traditionally sought to protect domestic industries and sectors, and intervened heavily in many of these with the stated goal of providing social services or preserving jobs for Tunisian nationals,” an MCC spokesperson told Congress. The result has been a “heavy regulatory burden [resulting in] unequal growth and job creation skewed toward the urban coastal areas.”

Congress is also taking a new look at regional investments in counterterrorism to help Tunisia and its North African neighbors better coordinate their struggle against the Islamic State and other militant groups. The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, has introduced legislation to codify the decade-old Trans-Sahara Partnership and bump up the US share by 8% to $84 million for the coming fiscal year.

But it’s not all roses in the land of the Jasmine Revolution.

Pro-democracy advocates in both the United States and Tunisia in particular are worried about pending legislation to more tightly regulate nongovernmental organizations. The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), a key supporter of post-revolution Tunisia in Washington, has warned that the effort could imperil what it calls “the most progressive and democratic legal framework for civil society in the Arab world.”

In its annual review of the State Department’s budget proposal, POMED reports that the US Embassy in Tunisia is advising the Youssef Chahed government’s reform efforts. In turn, Senate appropriators are striking a rare note of caution in their pending foreign aid bill with a request for the State Department to inform Congress of the proposed law’s “implications on the ability of USAID [the US Agency for International Development] and the Department of State to support Tunisian civil society programs.”


Tunisian embassy

Ambassador: Faycal Gouia

In post since: 2015


Lobbying By Ennahda Party

Party leader: Rachid Ghannouchi

Tunisia allies

Congressional Tunisia Caucus

  • Founded: 2013
  • Co-chairs:

    • Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
    • Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz.
Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy
Think tank
Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
Nonprofit advocacy group
Tunisian American Young Professionals
Advocacy group


U.S. Assistance

U.S. Arms Sales


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