US election TN

In an open letter to Barack Obama on July 27, 121 American analysts and former diplomats called upon the President to make an official visit to Tunisia before the end of his term in January. “In the Arab world today, Tunisia stands alone as the one country where those principles of justice, progress, and tolerance have prevailed against all odds over the past five years.” At a time when international political tensions are at a peak and an election in November may have drastic implications for American diplomacy, the letter highlights Tunisia’s status as the newest major non-NATO U.S. ally and partner in the counter-ISIL coalition. On August 1, the U.S. commenced airstrikes in neighboring Libya in the scope of its campaign against ISIL.

The letter is the third of its kind published by the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) since Tunisia and the US launched a Strategic Dialogue in 2014. After adopting a new constitution in January 2014, Tunisia was touted the prototype of democracy in the Arab world, and became popular speaking point in the discourse of officials who advocated supporting the country as a means to advance US interests abroad. On March 24, just before Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa traveled to Washington to meet with Obama, 65 former diplomats and experts wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry:

As you prepare to launch the Strategic Dialogue with Tunisia, we urge you to follow through on and deepen US commitments to help build an enduring Tunisian democracy by bolstering support for its economic, political, and security needs.

The letter articulated seven specific recommendations including revised travel warnings for Tunisia, increased economic aid, the establishment of a permanent USAID Mission, and the opening of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement.

Proponents of increased support for Tunisia have often criticized the “shockingly low” bilateral assistance that the administration has requested and that Congress has carved out for the country since 2011. “Prior to the revolution,” wrote the authors of the letter to Secretary Kerry, “Tunisia did not receive a significant bilateral assistance package.” The signatories argued that the president’s budget request of $66 million for Tunisia (the same amount requested in the previous year) was not in measure with the important milestones that the country had achieved over the past three years. Subsequently, Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget request for Tunisia was double—$134.4 million, and this past June, the US Treasury announced a $500 million loan guarantee to accompany ongoing reforms.

In May 2015, a letter addressed to President Obama commended Congress’ decision to designate increased funding to Tunisia, but insisted that economic input was still insufficient, pointing out that “US assistance to Tunisia continues to languish near the bottom half of MENA countries.” Two months after the Bardo attack and one day before President Beji Caid Essebsi set off to meet with his American counterpart in Washington, signatories requested a commitment of $800 million per year for three years, in addition to other forms of economic aid for Tunisia. They also reiterated the imperative to commence Free Trade Agreement negotiations, and to provide funds targeting transitional justice and security sector reforms.

This last letter sent to the White House on July 27 has been issued in the midst of an emotional pre-election period. “Tunisia presents a unique opportunity in a difficult election-year climate here at home, as a positive story that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and as a North African country where both the government and people want greater U.S. engagement.” Distinctive from the two previous letters whose concise recommendations were tailored to boost support for Tunisia, the most recent letter reflects the apprehension and concern of American voters and policy makers facing an uncertain shift in the country’s role and relations overseas. With the impending toss-up between presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump whose positions on issues such as counterterrorism and NATO promise vastly different paths for US foreign policy, a potential last visit to Tunisia by President Obama will precede an administration change with significant implications for the Maghreb country.

While some openly call for official support for Tunisia, the possible appointment of Youssef Chahed, relative of President Beji Caid Essebsi and a former employee of the American embassy in Tunis, raises questions around the less overt forms of US engagement with its unique North African partner.