On the occasion of the first US-Africa Leaders Summit hosted in Washington at the beginning of the month, President Moncef Marzouki was hosted by the Atlantic Council «to discuss the need for greater US and EU support for Tunisia’s transition.» The event, co-sponsored by the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, has been remarkably well-documented across Atlantic Council webpages, as well as on Twitter and Storify where the comments of event participants including «representatives from US Congress, US Government agencies, international financial institutions, and private industry» capture key points of the President’s talk and ensuing questions-and-answers session.
With the pressure that heightened political instability in Libya imposes upon the region at large and Tunisia in particular as the country fairly holds its breath until presidential and legislative elections, President Marzouki’s address was centered around inciting immediate support against terrorism that threatens to dismantle what has thus far been deemed a successful democratic transition. Alluding to civil war in Syria, dictatorship in Egypt, and chaos in Libya, the President identified the main challenges facing Tunisia as national and regional and highlighted in particular the humanitarian crisis that has accompanied the two million Libyan nationals who have moved into Tunisia.
More generally, Marzouki touched on the country’s political, security, and economic crises. Discussing the political scene, he referred repeatedly to the secularist-Islamist consensus that has been the common thread of the three successive interim governments since 2011. In terms of national security, «We were really a little bit naive,» Marzouki commented, explaining that Tunisia, a peaceful country and with a military was suppressed under the police state of Ben Ali, remains un-trained, under-prepared, and ill-equipped to face the threat of terrorism that has proliferated over the past three years. On the economic front, increasing poverty, unemployment, and frustration among young people amount an uncertain situation that does not entice foreign investors to «bet on Tunisia,» whereas this is precisely what Marzouki is asking the West to do, or else, he warned, «you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab World for the next century.»
Marzouki’s Request and the US “Possible Foreign Military Sale to Tunisia”
It is perhaps owing to the urgency of his message, the grave threats that political instability in Libya and regional terrorism pose to Tunisia’s political climate over the next three months, the potential dissipation of a democratic alliance (to the world’s Western democracies) in the MENA region, the straightforward request for military training and equipment, and more specifically twelve Black Hawk helicopters, that Marzouki’s appeal has been so widely diffused across US and international media outlets.
What is pertinent to note, as a Reuters article «US to sell Tunisia 12 Black Hawks to aid militant fight» makes clear, is that Marzouki’s message is for the precipitous release of materials that the US has already announced it will provide:
The intended transaction falls within the context of US diplomatic commitment to facilitating Tunisia’s democratic transition. In contrast to remarks in a recent piece on The World Post, «The Beleagured Tunisian Model» which contextualizes Marzouki’s address amidst wavering US interest in the region, the US government, most symbolically through Secretary of State John Kerry and to a lesser extent President Barack Obama, has been clear about its sizable investment in Tunisia since the revolution. On the official US-Africa Leaders Summit White House webpage, a series of links connects readers to information on US Relations With Tunisia where one can read about the presumably long history of Tunisia-US «friendly» relations:
The United States was the first major power to recognize Tunisian sovereignty and established diplomatic relations with Tunisia in 1956 following its independence from France. On January 14, 2011, a popular revolution began a process of democratic transition that is still underway … Since the January 2011 revolution, the US has committed more than $350 million to support Tunisia’s transition. US assistance to Tunisia focuses on an array of target areas that include ensuring and enhancing internal and external security, promoting democratic practices and good governance, and supporting sustainable economic growth. US Relationship With Tunisia Fact Sheet, August 22, 2013, US Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
A separate Fact Sheet on US Government Assistance to Tunisia from December 14, 2014 includes a section on «Bolstering Counterterrorism Efforts» that outlines an «Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) Program» and «Enhancing Border-Security Efforts»:
The United States will provide technical assistance, equipment, and related training for front-line Tunisian enforcement personnel at airports, sea ports, and land borders. The US will also provide support in the development and strengthening of comprehensive strategic trade control systems that meets international standards.
In response to a question following his address, Marzouki was clear about the current limited capacity of Tunisia’s military forces both in terms of equipment and training, which he attributed to thirty years of negligeance by a government whose investment in security was infamously and excessively devoted to its police forces. Accordingly, the possible provision of 12 UH-60M Black Hawk Helicopters complete with — among a paragraph-long list of machinery, weaponry, and other equipment — 24 M134 7.62mm Machine Guns, 100 2.75 Hydra Rockets, 100 AGM-114R Hellfire Missiles, and 24 GAU-19 .50 cal Machine Guns, is intended “to improve the security of a friendly country in North Africa.” A previous security investment in the form of the “Supply and Delivery, to include training” of a US drones system to Tunisia earlier this year was the subject of a Nawaat article in which Sami Ben Gharbia touched upon the crux of the security burden that is at the forefront of Tunisia-US negotiations today:
Even while denouncing the crimes committed, in complete impunity, and the atrocious executions carried out by these drones in foreign skies, we are aware of the unique context of political transition in our region of the world. This context clearly demands more effective management of the territory by the Tunisian government. That we do not have the means to maintain a significant fleet of helicopters due to the exorbitant operational costs of border control is a fact. Therefore drones become an alternative for surveillance of the national territory. Sami Ben Gharbia, United States Embassy in Tunis: Supply and Delivery, to Include Training, of a Drones System
The Atlantic Council event that coincided with the US-Africa Leaders Summit has proved to be an effective outlet for Marzouki’s reiteration of the fact of insufficient means to meet urgent security needs. The economic machine, as the President described it, has stopped, and and it is with this in mind that he has implored the West — from loan-granting institutions such as the IMF to the United States and governments within the European Union — for understanding and leniency. The coming months that will reveal Tunisia’s ability to navigate political, economic, and security crises will also indicate the extent to which the US keeps its promises, and now as well its willingness to accelerate the rate at which these promises are fulfilled.
Thank you Vanessa for your article on this key situation. Really the only serious report on what happened at this summit i’ve come across. We need you more Vanessa on that key like subjects.
But we (I) would like to hear more of your opinions at the end of your reports. You provide quality information with a neutral stand point, well, what if at the end you gratifies us with your thoughts?
Thank you any way and always happy to read you.
It is indeed interesting and disappointing that there has not been much speculation on this event in Tunisian media. There are brief reports summarizing Marzouki’s visit, but—if I am not mistaken and/or no articles have emerged since I researched the topic—no associated analyses or contextualization in either French or Arabic.
If it is true that I have here provided «quality information with a neutral stand point,» then perhaps I have done the most I can do as a foreigner in Tunisia and stagiaire at Nawaat. Whereas I am fascinated by the information we find on current events, politics, and international relations across different (especially «Western» and «Arab») media outlets, I feel that my role in writing about what I read in the news must be to the end of diffusing information and broadening avenues of communication, understanding, and discussion across geographical and linguistic borders…
If in this and other cases I have refrained from imposing my own views and biases, it is certainly for the better, as the complexity of historical, political, social, and economic factors that define the current events and issues of today render my own opinions limited and irrelevant to these articles published online.
Thank you, Mr. Kabadou, for your encouraging remarks and commentary.