While U.S. Republicans have by and large voiced their disapproval at what they perceive as massive overspending in Obama's overall FY17 U.S. Budget Proposal, which tips the scales at a hefty $4.1 Trillion USD, some Congressional Republicans have slammed the Obama administration for……. under spending, at least where it concerns Tunisia.
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) 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.
During introductory statements the USAID's Alexander summed up the region specific spending "It may be useful to think of our Fiscal Year 2017 priorities in the region within three critical areas: mitigating the human impact of ongoing conflicts, supporting core U.S. national security objectives, and fostering inclusive development and reform as opportunities arise."
Towards addressing those regional priorities U.S. President Barack Obama has requested nearly 7.3 billion USD for the MENA region, roughly 9% increase on the 2016 MENA budget.
Of that 7.3 billion the bulk will go to Israel and Egypt, which are set to receive 3.1 billion and 1.5 billion respectively, while Jordan is also slated to receive 1 billion. Concerning Tunisia, Assistant Secretary Patterson said of Tunisia in her introduction "we see a burgeoning democracy in need of our support." and later returning to Tunisia in her conclusion, adding "Tunisia, has been relatively successful in its transition but still needs our support. Tunisia is the only country from the 2011 Arab Awakening that has defined a path to democracy, and the President’s 2017 request will provide additional resources to support our Tunisian partners as they consolidate these gains."
While opening the hearings, the Republican Chair of the MENA subcommittee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, argued for a larger aid package than that which Obama had requested for Tunisia, stating:
"Tunisia is strategically important and this is where the democratic transition has been referred to by the Administration as a model for other states in the Arab world.
However, when compared to Egypt, Jordan or even Lebanon our aid package to Tunisia does not really indicate that the administration views its future as a high priority.
The People and Government of Tunisia need us now more than ever, while this year's request may represent an increase, foreign military financing assistance for Tunisia's security accounts for 45 million while slightly more than that is being provided for democracy and governance and economic assistance.
Tunisia is facing some trying times at the moment and we want to support it and ensure that it remains on the transition towards democracy, yet the administration does not appear to be making a successful transition a priority in this request."
As requested by the Obama Administration the 2017 budget would see approximately 134 million USD in funding for Tunisia. Including 74 million USD in economic assistance, primarily through the Economic Support Fund (ESF) and approximately 58 million USD in security and military assistance.
After the opening statements from the subcommittee members the USAID's Alexander and Secretary Patterson briefly read from prepared testimony and answered questions from the subcommittee which focused primarily on the many conflicts in the region, support for Israel and opposition to Iran all of which are extensively covered elsewhere.
Tunisia only reappeared in the prepared testimony, selected Tunisia specific portions of which are available below:
The subcommittee is comprised of eleven Majority (Republican) members, including subcommittee Chairman (person) and eight Minority (Democrat) members including Rep. Lois Frankel (FL) who visited Tunisia less than a week ago with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep Ed Royce (R-CA) where they met with President Beji Caid Essebsi, Prime Minister Habib Essid and members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) including Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur.
After meeting with President Essebsi, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Royce who oversees the subcommittee and like Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican, told reporters at the Presidential Palace in Carthage:
“One of the topics of discussions was how the United States could further assist Tunisia with respect to security, but also with respect to more economic activity. Economic Reforms that Tunisia is undertaking at this time, what could we do to get more trade and investment with the United States and also how the United States could be involved in more participation whether it be on dialogue over democracy or dialogue over the region.”
Although much of President Obama's final budget request is considered D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival) and unlikely to be approved in a 'lame duck' session of the Republican majority Congress, which will likely leave significant portions of domestic budget in limbo until after the November elections. However the Congress can advance and alter specific portions of the budget and as the MENA budget is a Washington rarity insofar as it contains many policy items which enjoy bipartisan support such as fighting the Islamic State, support for Israel and yes, support for its newest major non NATO ally, it seems reasonable to hope that Tunisia could see a bit more than what Obama requested.
There is a precedent, in 2016 Tunisia saw an original 134 million USD request raised to 142 million by the Senate appropriations committee.
The Ranking Minority Member, Democratic Congressman Theodore E. Deutch, refrained from criticizing Obama's funding priorities, and used his opening statement to focus on Tunisia's security reforms, the threat posed by Tunisian jihadists who have joined the Islamic State and called on Morocco and Algeria to increase intelligence with their smaller Maghreb neighbors Tunisia and Libya.
Reading from a prepared statement Rep. Deutch said:
"In Tunisia, we look for ways to bolster the country's economy and nascent democracy while stabilizing the security situation.
The Tunisian government has thus far responded well to the number of deadly attacks over the past year and we have seen positive results from our efforts to help Tunisian security forces to professionalize in these difficult circumstances.
However, it is troubling that a large contingent of foreign fighters to ISIS are Tunisian, and the entrance of ISIS into Libya will continue to pose a threat to the region and especially to Tunisia.
The security situation in Libya is tenuous, just last week U.S. General David Rodriguez, the outgoing commander of AFRICOM said that number of ISIS fighters in Libya has doubled in the last year.
That's why it's more important than ever that Libya move forward with a unity government. A strong central government backed by Libyan security forces is the only way to keep ISIS at bay.
Combatting ISIS in North Africa will require strong cooperation across the Maghreb. Morocco and Algeria must play a significant role in intelligence sharing both with [their] neighbors and with the United States and Europe to track foreign fighters and terror cells."
Immediately after Chairman Royce and Congresswoman Frankel's visit to Tunisia, the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Daniel Rubinstein was quoted in Tunis Afrique Presse TAP, via a Defense Ministry release, after meeting with Defense Minister Farhat Horchani on April 8, and as stating that “his country will continue to support the operational capacities of the Tunisian army in equipment as well as the level of training, co-ordination, and exchange of information in matters of fight against terrorism.” adding “the U.S. support will also concern securing the borders.”
To that effect the U.S. embassy announced in a statement on Friday, March 25 that the U.S. had disbursed the first installment of a $24.9 million project to install an electronic surveillance system along the recently completed security barrier that spans the 250 km from portion of the Tunisia-Libya border Ras Jedir to Dehiba.
In May of 2015 after a visit to the Whitehouse by Tunisian President Essebsi the United States declared Tunisia a Major Non-NATO Ally.
Beyond direct assistance and loans the United States has also provided Tunisia with loan guarantees, allowing cheaper access to loans.
Selected Tunisia Specific Testimony
House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee: “Assessing President Obama’s Middle East and North Africa FY2017 Budget Request” April 13, 2016.
Statement of Ambassador Anne W. Patterson
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (Full Testimony)
Tunisia is an important, if still nascent, democratic example for the region. Tunisians have made significant strides over the past year, as demonstrated by the passage of key economic reform legislation, but the country still has steps to take and requires continued support and investment from its international partners, in particular the United States. Its transition remains fragile due to ongoing domestic and external challenges, not the least of which is regional instability emanating from the political and security crisis in Libya. The FY 2017 Request seeks $140.4 million in assistance, an increase of $49.0 million from resources made available in FY 2015, supporting our strategic partnership with Tunisia. Our assistance helps Tunisia address the significant security challenges resulting from regional and internal threats including support to the Tunisian military’s work to transform into an agile, counterterrorism-focused force that respects human rights and democratic principles. Funding included in the FY 2017 request will also help expand economic growth, promote democratic processes, and improve governance in Tunisia.
The importance of our regional programs cannot be understated as they tackle needs faced throughout the Middle East. Threats to vulnerable populations are increasing and our regional programs focus on countering the drivers of violent extremism and simultaneously fostering economic growth. The FY 2017 request includes funding for programs providing critical support for civil society, businesses, and non-governmental organizations that advocate for political, social, and economic reform. For example, the request includes $60.0 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and $7.9 million for the NEA portion of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which fosters regional security cooperation to counter violent extremists across North Africa and the Sahel. Our commitment to fostering democratic organizations and strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights spans across the region from Morocco to Iran. In addition, regional programs like MEPI fund activities foster entrepreneurship, engage with at-risk youth, empower women, and develop the capacity of local organizations to engage with governments in the region on political and economic reform. For example, a recent MEPI program partnered with Tunisian franchising associations, individual entrepreneurs, and the Government of Tunisia to streamline franchising regulations and procedures. As a result of changes affected by this project, local entrepreneurs have opened nearly twenty-nine franchises, including fifteen American franchises in Tunisia.
Statement of Paige Alexander Assistant Administrator,
Bureau for the Middle East U.S. Agency for International Development (Full Testimony)
Before I conclude, I’d like to speak about Tunisia, which has been relatively successful in its transition but still needs our support. Tunisia is the only country from the 2011 Arab Awakening that has defined a path to democracy, and the President’s 2017 request will provide additional resources to support our Tunisian partners as they consolidate these gains. The increase in funding reflects the U.S. Government’s commitment to expanding economic and governance partnerships between the United States and Tunisia. With more than $1.4 billion in annual trade between our countries, we already have an important economic relationship. The FY2017 request will enable USAID to continue to support the development of the Tunisian private sector by investing in programs that support small and medium sized enterprises that contribute to inclusive economic growth and employment. This includes $20 million, which will fulfill USAID’s $100 million commitment to the Tunisia Enterprise Fund. USAID’s efforts in Tunisia created nearly 4,000 sustainable private-sector jobs last year, and we expect that our interventions will result in more than 5,000 additional new jobs this year. In one example, we worked with Hewlett Packard and UNIDO on a “Tackling Tunisian Unemployment” program that works exclusively in marginalized areas, primarily close to Tunisia’s borders with Algeria and Libya. In these areas, USAID has brought online entrepreneurship training to 9,000 Tunisians, and more than 1,100 have found new employment. We are finalizing a Country Development Cooperation Strategy for Tunisia that will focus on economic opportunity and private sector growth to create much needed jobs, but will also improve the participation of marginalized communities in local governance and improve governments’ responsiveness to citizen needs.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs,
Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee: “Assessing President Obama’s Middle East and North Africa FY2017 Budget Request” April 13, 2016.