What will change in the relations between Tunisia and the United States following the May 20-21 official visit of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi?
Undoubtedly, the visit resulted in several agreements, including the memorandum of understanding signed by US Secretary of State [John Kerry] and Mohsen Marzouk, Tunisia's minister-adviser in charge of political affairs. However, the highlight of the official visit was [President] Barack Obama’s announcement that he would grant the country the status of major non-NATO ally.
A flashback to a controversial and landmark visit
When he first visited the United States in October 2011, when he was the country’s prime minister of an outgoing provisional government, Essebsi had been given plenty of promises.
During his second two-day visit, in his capacity as president of the republic, Essebsi managed to pull off tangible agreements.
However, one ought to stop at the surprising announcement by Obama granting Tunisia a high distinction — the status of major non-NATO ally. How would this distinction serve Tunisia on the ground?
According to experts, this status is a high distinction rarely given by the United States and has been granted to only 15 friendly countries, including Japan, Australia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco.
Washington grants this status to allied countries that have strategic relations with but are not part of the US armed forces. With this status, Tunisia, which is the sixth Arab country to be granted this distinction, could benefit regarding “some rights for defense, cooperation and growth.”
In more detail, the non-NATO ally member status allows concerned countries to have access to enhanced military cooperation with the United States, particularly in terms of development, purchase of arms and military training. This is not to mention the massive support in various areas at the military and security levels, allowing the ally members to have access to advanced technologies, latest-generation weaponry and top intelligence information.
Furthermore, the White House has already announced that it demanded Congress approve aid of $138 million for 2016, of which $62.5 million would be allocated to the army. The White House also announced that 52 Humvee military vehicles and a patrol ship have been delivered to the Tunisian army, which is also expected to receive four other American ships by 2016.
Sources close to Essebsi who accompanied him on his visit said that the president struggled to sway Kerry, influential people at the Peace Institute and senators and members of Congress strongly opposed to the proposal.
However, Obama had the final say. Thus, Essebsi had to convince Vice President Joe Biden — a discreet man who has influence with his boss. Biden had invited the Tunisian president for breakfast.
It seemed that the last card up Essebsi’s sleeve paid off. In fact, on the afternoon of May 21, Obama designated Tunisia a major American ally.
Observers, however, wonder if this decision had been discussed with the Algerian government, especially since a few days before the president’s visit to Washington, Prime Minister Habib Essid was also on an official trip to Algiers.
Even if nothing has been said about the proposal, according to observers, it is very unlikely that the subject was not addressed, especially since Algeria is a major and privileged ally of Tunisia. The two countries share strong ties, as Algeria has provided Tunisia with significant financial and political support, not to mention their tight cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Undoubtedly, not all the details of Essebsi’s visit have been disclosed. We already know enough about the result of the negotiations between the staff that accompanied the president and the senior US officials.
One ought to first mention that the memorandum — despite all the controversy that was sparked about the signatory, Mohsen Marzouk — stresses the US commitment to promote Tunisia’s security and defense potential.
The memorandum also underscored cooperation between the two countries in the field of fighting terrorism through funds allowing the purchase of military equipment. The United States also offered to organize military training programs in the field of security.
Furthermore, the memorandum provides for strengthening cooperation in terms of higher education in scientific and cultural domains. This is in addition to establishing an economic commission involving the public and private sectors in both countries. It is expected that the commission would hold periodic meetings in Tunis and Washington to discuss ways to boost bilateral trade and to promote investment.
This memorandum of understanding constitutes “a strong message to promote the nascent democracy in Tunisia,” Kerry said.
The visit also included roundtable discussions with American businessmen and investors, a meeting with the US secretary of defense and Biden at the Pentagon, and a meeting with the Tunisian community in the United States. This is not to mention the decision to grant in the future a much larger number of scholarships to Tunisian students who wish to pursue their higher studies in the United States.
So, was this visit a success? According to Essebsi, it has achieved all its objectives.
Some critics, however, remain intransigent on the issue that Marzouk was the one to sign the memorandum. For their part, political, economic and security experts believe that the memorandum’s ins and outs and pros and cons ought to be carefully studied.
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