America Still Needs To Invest In Tunisia's Future

The federal aid budget shouldn't take Tunisia's success for granted.

Tunisia’s democratic success is back in the international spotlight following the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. The prize is well deserved—the National Dialogue Quartet achieved a remarkable feat by putting Tunisia’s transition back on track while maintaining the respect of the Tunisian political class and the public. However, today Tunisia’s transition remains fragile and will require the full support of the international community—including the United States—to ensure the forces working against democracy in Tunisia do not succeed.

As the darling of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has generally enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. Thus, it was surprising that Senate appropriators approved a foreign aid bill in July that would give Tunisia 35 percent less than the $134.4 million requested by the administration and approved by the House. The House bill includes an increase in Economic Support Funds (ESF) from $30 million in FY15 to $55 million in FY16 and an increase in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) from $25 million to $62.5 million. The Senate, conversely, would increase ESF only slightly (to $45 million) and FMF even less (to $30 million), despite Tunisia’s two recent terror attacks (in March at the Bardo Museum and in June at a resort in Sousse).

The Senate appropriators’ justification, in part, was that the State Department did not adequately explain the need for increased funds for Tunisia. Here I offer four reasons why Congress should fund the full $134.4 million request:

- Tunisia needs donor assistance now more than ever as it navigates an increasingly perilous security environment and continuing economic challenges.

- Tunisia has been a reliable U.S. partner.

- Investment in Tunisia has the potential to pay off around the region.

- The United States government has publicly and privately pledged its commitment to Tunisia.


Don’t Take Tunisia’s Success for Granted

Tunisian Head of Government Habib Essid said recently at the Council on Foreign Relations that “what happened in Tunisia is irreversible.” But while Tunisia has made tremendous progress on the path towards liberal democracy, Essid’s optimism is somewhat misplaced. As representatives of prominent U.S. democracy promotion organizations wrote in July, “To successfully address [Tunisia’s] considerable challenges … requires a recognition that Tunisia is still in a state of political transition that can be quickly reversed.” Tunisia’s progress is under threat from both deliberate attempts to undermine the transition as well as from a stagnant economy and continued economic injustice, which brought about the 2011 revolution in the first place.

Tunisia faces three separate but related security threats: homegrown terrorists, including those affiliated with U.S.-designated terrorist groups Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; Tunisians who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIL; and a porous border with Libya, allowing dangerous individuals to travel back and forth fairly easily. The two recent attacks on Tunisian soil directly targeted the tourism industry and Tunisian economy writ large, killing 20 tourists and two Tunisians at a popular museum in March and 37 tourists and one Tunisian at a coastal resort in June. The attacks achieved their desired effect—U.S. and European governments issued increased travel warnings, tourism decreased during the usually peak summer season and the Tunisian government responded by declaring a state of emergency, which was only lifted on October 2, and which further dissuaded visitors to Tunisia. In both cases, the Tunisian security services (many of whom were U.S.-trained) responded quickly and professionally. But further professionalization of law enforcement and other security services is necessary as part of a larger security sector reform project. Much of the Tunisian population remains wary of the security services, due to their role during the pre-revolutionary Ben Ali regime. And without additional counterterrorism training and equipment targeted at prevention, we are likely to see additional attacks on Tunisian soil.