The U.S. House of Representatives' Congressional Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing on Wednesday, May 25, on "Tunisia’s Struggle for Stability, Security, and Democracy", MENA subcommittee members heard testimony from and questioned Mr. John Desrocher, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Ms. Maria Longi, the Deputy Assistant Administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Bureau for the Middle East.
From Deputy Assistant Secretary Desrocher prepared testimony:
"I am happy to report that the Tunisian-American partnership continues to deepen and mature as we confront shared security challenges, build sustainable economic growth that benefits both nations, and build a strong democratic, inclusive tradition that serves as a model for the region. Tunisia is a reliable partner, and we can make it stronger if we continue to show our support through its transition."
"We look forward to building on the commitments of the JEC (Joint Economic Commission) over the coming year, and continue looking for opportunities to promote private sector growth and public sector cooperation."
See: "Joint Statement by the United States of America and the Republic of Tunisia" issued at the conclusion of the Joint Economic Commission (JEC) held in Washington on May 6, 2016
Deputy Assistant Administrator Longi stated for the record:
"Tunisia has made impressive strides in the past five years, and we recognize that there is still a long way to go. With the support of Congress, USAID hopes to do even more to support Tunisia during its democratic and economic transition, working hand in hand with the Tunisian people to fulfill their aspirations. A successful Tunisia benefits the Tunisian people, the region, and the United States."
"In response to a Tunisian government request and in order to closely target our assistance to the government’s priorities and our comparative advantage, we are now finalizing a Country Development Cooperation Strategy for Tunisia."
After their prepared testimony both Longi and Desrocher were asked by Representative Ted S. Yoho (R-FL) on what 'Tunisia had done right and wrong' in its ongoing democratic transition and its efforts combat terrorism, reform the economy and reduce unemployment.
Maria Longi addressing the Tunisian government's efforts to reform the economy, answered "The pace probably may seem slow, but if you look how this new vibrant democracy is working they have passed some very important business reform laws that over time if they keep up with commitment will help create those private sector jobs."
Desrocher, who in his prepared testimony had noted "Tunisia’s big tent government moves slowly" saw consensus building as both a constructive force and a timely process with its own risks, answering: "What the Tunisians have done right is they have been guided by a state of consensus and sense of despite differing political or economic approaches a sense of the need to move together." to then add "These kinds of reforms take time and with the difficult situation Tunisia is facing time is very precious."
When Representative Brendan Boyle (D-Ohio) asked if he was correct in evaluating their testimony as optimistic, both Desrocher and Longi agreed with the categorization based on the involvement, engagement and commitment of Tunisian government's efforts to reform its institutions, economy and improve the prospects and rights of its citizens.
MENA subcommittee Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen, who has argued for increasing aid to Tunisia at previous subcommittee hearings, closed by calling the hearing a "Realistic and hopeful outlook for our great partner Tunisia." adding "It was sad to see beautiful hotels empty and we hope that folks come back to the beauty of Tunisia"
The hearing coincides with a two day visit to Tunisia by U.S. State Department Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs Ziad Haider from May 25-26 to promote the 7th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (June 22-24) in Silicon Valley, CA. While in Tunisia Special Representative Haider will attend events in partnership with the Tunis Business School, Pragma Corporation, and key government officials in the Ministries of Commerce, Industry, and Vocational Training and Employment.
When on Wednesday April 13, the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, which has jurisdiction on legislation as well as oversight of foreign assistance activities affecting the MENA region, including region or country specific loans, heard testimony from Assistant State Department Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Anne W. Patterson and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Paige Alexander to assess the MENA specific portion of a requested State Department and USAID 2017 budget of 50.1 billion USD, Ros-Lehtinen had called the Tunisia assistance in President Barack Obama's proposed budget insufficient and stated "The people of and government of Tunisia need us now more than ever."
As requested by the Obama Administration the 2017 budget in its current form would see approximately 134 million USD in funding for Tunisia through foreign assistance programs.
Including 74 million USD in economic assistance, primarily through the Economic Support Fund (ESF) and approximately 58 million USD in security and military assistance.
Although in previous years President Obama has increased the overall level of year end assistance to Tunisia over the course of the year and outside of the original budget requests through reallocation of resources and other mechanisms such as loan guarantees such as the one John Desrocher announced during his last visit to Tunisia in April. The guarantee, at 500 million USD would be the third such loan guarantee the U.S. has offered Tunisia since the 2011 Revolution.
In May of 2015, during a visit by President Beji Caid Essebsi to Washington D.C., President Obama declared Tunisia a Major Non Nato Ally (MNNA) of the United States, a designation which facilitates financial and security assistance.
May 25, 2016
Mr. John Deputy Assistant Secretary Desrocher, for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Ms. Maria Longi, Deputy Assistant Administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Bureau for the Middle East
Mr. John Deputy Assistant Secretary Desrocher, for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs:
- The Department of State, USAID, and Department of Defense work together with our Tunisian partners to design and implement counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) and security sector reform measures.
- Another important element of our approach to supporting Tunisian security needs is our Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). It uses a whole-of-government approach in the Maghreb and the Sahel to build capacity and promote regional cooperation and coordination.
- Tunisia continues to face considerable challenges. Between 3,000 and 6,000 Tunisians have joined extremist groups abroad--especially in Libya--placing Tunisia among the largest per capita source countries of foreign terrorist fighters in the world.
- Between 250,000 and 1 million Libyans currently live in Tunisia, having fled instability in their own country, which strains communities’ capacity to serve their citizens’ needs.
- Without a permanent political solution to the ongoing strife in Libya, Tunisia will continue to face real and persistent security challenges from across the border.
- The March 7, 2016 attack on Ben Guerdane, in which nearly 100 Da’esh-affiliated attackers crossed the border and sought to overwhelm security forces and take control of the city, also accentuated the danger that instability in neighboring Libya poses to Tunisian security.
- In that case, the Tunisian military heroically and professionally thwarted the attack.
- We note the response of the Tunisian security forces to the Ben Guerdane attack, and the restrained peacekeeping efforts of civil police during recent economic protests.
- These events show that our long-term investment to help train Tunisia’s civilian security forces is paying dividends. We will continue to build upon this success in the future.
On Governance and the Economy:
- Last year’s terrorist attacks devastated the tourism industry, which accounts for 12 percent of GDP and which, even before the two attacks, remained below pre-revolution levels.
- Unemployment is over 15 percent, and twice as high for recent graduates, those living in the interior of the country, and women.
- Tunisia needs to generate about 100,000 jobs every year to keep pace with the projected growth of the workforce, particularly university graduates.
- Tunisia continues to develop long-neglected government institutions, but practices of the old regime linger.
- I note reports from human rights groups that repressive practices continue by some members of Tunisia’s security forces.
- We are also concerned about reports of corruption at all levels of government that reflect the economic hardship faced by many Tunisians, the oversaturation of government payrolls, and the culture of permissiveness that built over the Ben Ali era.
- But Tunisia is confronting these political challenges. Tunisian officials rightly take pride in their country’s exemplary efforts to promote rule of law, transparency, and accountability; reform its security sector; and reinforce principles of democratic governance.
- More needs to be done on all these fronts, but establishing transparency and accountability mechanisms and a culture of zero tolerance of corruption will take time.
Ms. Maria Longi, Deputy Assistant Administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Bureau for the Middle East on the USAID's activities in Tunisia:
- Immediate post-revolution support Since 2011, USAID has provided approximately $300 million to support Tunisia’s economic growth and democratic transition.
- This includes two sovereign loan guarantees that provided Tunisia with access to $985 million in financing and helped support Tunisia’s efforts to reform and grow its economy.
- we are finalizing the negotiations with the Government of Tunisia for a third sovereign loan guarantee for up to $500 million.
- With more than $1.4 billion in annual trade between our countries, we already have an important economic relationship.
- Through careful analysis, we identified significant constraints to job creation and economic growth in Tunisia, highlighting the non-functional labor code and poor business enabling environment.
- USAID has been working to address constraints to job creation and economic growth in many ways, including helping Tunisian firms unlock opportunities for growth and supporting job creation, training young entrepreneurs in marginalized areas, and providing technical assistance to Tunisia’s government as it drafts and implements laws to improve the investment climate and encourage private sector development.
- At the strategic level, USAID has embedded technical advisors in the Ministry of Finance, working with the Minister and strategic directorates within the Ministry to provide advice and best practices on tax and customs reforms and implementation, which will improve the environment for U.S. and Tunisian companies to do business together.
- This ongoing work also complements assistance provided from the Department of the Treasury to the Central Bank and Ministry of Finance.
- USAID programs in Tunisia have helped create more than 12,000 new, sustainable, private-sector jobs in the past two years.