On April 8, 2014, US Ambassador Jake Walles held a press conference on the Tunisian head of government’s recent visit to the United States. We learned nothing new about this visit, including its challenges and results. The only lesson to be drawn is that communication about this visit was masterfully organized and well studied.
The speeches made by Walles and Mehdi Jomaa are similar to such an extent that they could be easily interchanged. The focus was mainly on economic cooperation between the two countries, by virtue of which the United States shall offer Tunisia a guarantee for $500 million.
The assistance to Tunisia in the fight against terrorism was also largely discussed. The US ambassador highlighted the military and security cooperation between the two countries, through the training provided by the US military to Tunisian security forces on the fight against terrorism. Military supplies were also discussed, but the ambassador did not give details on this matter. Investment, student exchanges and university scholarships were tackled as well.
The central themes of this visit were overly repeated by the media. The US-Tunisian will to show that the page was being turned was clear throughout the visit. During his visit to the United States, Jomaa received all honor treatments. He was hosted by US President Barack Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden. He also met with several members of Congress and visited two world-class US technology companies, Google and Microsoft.
These are privileges that no Tunisian post-revolution prime minister has ever received. It is clear that the United States wants to show its support for opting for a government of technocrats headed by Jomaa. By conferring to the prime minister this international stature and agreeing to put in some money, Americans confirmed their approval of this choice resulting from the national dialogue.
During the press conference, several Tunisian journalists attempted to probe this matter by asking the ambassador what he had meant by his statement that he had advised the US government to keep an eye on Jomaa. As a skilled diplomat, Walles dodged questions by reiterating that the United States has not interfered in Tunisia’s decisions and the choice of Jomaa was made without them. We must acknowledge that. However, isn’t the difference in treatment accorded by the United States to Jomaa compared to Laarayedh or Hamadi Jebali a message in itself? Undoubtedly it is.
No effort has been spared in a bid to meticulously prepare the statements related to this visit, which was announced days in advance at the invitation of President Obama.
Tunisian media representatives accompanied Jomaa on his US trip. Upon his return, the prime minister held a press conference at the Tunisian airport on Sunday, April 6. The following day, his Minister of Economy and Finance, Hakim Ben Hammouda, made a media appearance. He described the visit and listed the benefits that it brought to Tunisia. On Tuesday, April 8, it was the US ambassador’s turn to do so after he had just gotten back from the United States. He repeated what had been made public in the joint statement prepared after the visit, with only a few different turns of phrase.
The key message from these statements is divided into two aspects. The first consists of highlighting the unwavering US support to the democratic transition in Tunisia at both economic and security levels. The second consists of saying in a more subtle way that the page has been turned in US-Tunisian relations with the advent of Jomaa as prime minister.
The ties between the two countries are in good shape now after they had worryingly dwindled in the wake of the attack on the US Embassy on Sep. 12, 2012. In a bid to show that all is well between Tunisia and the United States, there has been this “invention” of a strategic dialogue between the two countries, a consultation that brings together senior leaders of the two countries every year. This is not the kind of decision that can be made by a head of an interim government who is supposed to leave once the next elections are held.
In short, thanks to these statements, the message was clearly conveyed: Jomaa will benefit from US support during his temporary mission as Tunisian prime minister.
Meanwhile, there have been whispers in Washington corridors that Jomaa’s profile is very appealing and he seems like “a pragmatic businessman.” This perception tends to reinforce the idea that Jomaa is “the man for the job,” even if, in terms of achievements, results are yet to be seen.
One of the objectives set by Jomaa is the restoration of the state prestige. Clearly, this visit to the United States will significantly contribute to achieving this objective, or at least to giving the impression that it has been. What is still needed, however, is a consistent marketing effort aimed at “selling” the achievements of the government, and the desk of Jomaa is full of burning issues that can do the job.
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