Youssef Chahed, Tunisian Prime Minister with the American Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis (July 2017)

In May 2017, the Trump administration presented its budget request, which included a drastic decrease in the levels of foreign assistance to countries, with the exception of Israel, Egypt and Jordan, in North Africa and the Middle East. The proposed cuts were the most significant for Tunisia, which would receive 67% less funding under the administration’s budget request.

Congress errs on the side of more for Tunisia

In July 2017, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed visited members of Congress in Washington, where he made the case for increased, or at least sustained, levels of bilateral assistance to Tunisia. The same month, both Democratic and Republican senators agreed on the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill fulfilling that request, not only rejecting the Trump administration’s severe cuts but recommending « not less » than the previous year’s funding for the country, a record high of $165.4 million. The Appropriations Committee’s assistance recommendation for Tunisia included $79 million in Economic Support Funds (ESF) and $65 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF), a program for defense equipment and training.

Instead of following the administration’s lead, the Appropriations Committee noted « the important role the countries of North Africa play with respect to global security and stability. Therefore the bill includes a new provision requiring a strategy from the Secretary of State on how diplomatic engagement and assistance will be prioritized for these countries ». It furthermore recommended an assessment for the possibility of a multi-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and authorizes « loan guarantees and an enterprise fund » for Tunisia.

While Trump’s proposed funding cuts are drastic, it is not the first time that an administration’s budget requests fall short of Congress appropriations for Tunisia. In the Foreign Affairs Budget report published by the Washington think-tank Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), authors Stephen McInerney and Cole Bockenfeld observed that « steadily increasing amounts of bilateral assistance over the past six years » were « primarily driven by Congress, which often provided bilateral assistance to Tunisia in excess of the amount requested by the Obama administration ».

Youssef Chahed received at the US Dpartment of Defense (July 2017)

« Militarization » of foreign funding

Since 2011, the US has directed $750 million in assistance to Tunisia, plus about $1.5 billion in loan guarantees. The POMED report shows how increased funding over the years has gone in tandem with the « growing militarization » of US engagement in the region, « at the expense of diplomacy and development » as « the Defense Department has been steadily taking on a larger role in managing and administering security assistance, traditionally led by the State Department ». McInerney and Bockenfeld indicate that the current administration’s proposed cuts would consolidate this trend. Worse, « the proposal to shift Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for most from grants to loans could lead many recipient governments to seek DOD-managed security assistance to replace FMF grants, rather than taking on loans. » Such a shift would have serious implications for Tunisia, whose foreign debt constitutes over 46% of the country’s public debt, according to the Ministry of Finance.

But for all the uncertainty and concern around what these proposed changes would mean, US bilateral assistance for Tunisia in the coming year will more likely than not look a lot like 2017 numbers, Todd Ruffren, Advocacy Officer for POMED in Washington, told Nawaat. Asked why Congress has continued to show more interest in the country than have the present and previous administrations, Ruffren pointed out that an administration’s budget request is not necessarily a measure of its interest in a country. In the present case for instance, drastic cuts are more likely part of the Trump administration’s efforts to trim down the overall budget, and more specifically to « reduce the State Department’s footprint » in favor of carving out a larger budget for the Defense Department.

What democracy overseas means to Washington

As for decision-makers in Washington, Ruffren indicates, it boils down to one word: democracy. Abundantly as the term is used, the value of Tunisia’s image as « the nascent democracy in the region genuinely cannot be overstated », says Ruffren. In order for the US to secure its leadership in the Arab world, it is relying on Tunisia for a stable footing in North Africa.

Researcher and journalist Fadil Aliriza confirms as much. He describes how the country serves as a strategic « outpost » from which to survey Algeria and Libya and where diplomatic, military and intelligence officials intersect. “In some sense”, says Aliriza, “Tunisia is being molded into the next Jordan » in terms of its « integration into the US military-economic sphere “. True, he continues, Tunisia may be a relatively small market for the US, « but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people interested in making a buck. Even minor corporate interests in development or security contracts can shape policy towards a small country like Tunisia ».

At the end of the day, does US policy and foreign assistance for Tunisia ever translate into a democratic society, a more equitable model of governance within the country? Of course it depends on who you ask. For Aliriza, « A big chunk of what we call assistance is security assistance, a lot of people would like to put that in the framework of supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition, which is problematic for a lot of reasons. Much of democratization in practice gets translated into narrow security assistance or economic liberalization—the latter based on the idea that opening up the economic sphere is identical to or at least complementary to the opening up of the political sphere, which coincidentally aligns with American corporate interests—but not necessarily a broader sense of democratization if we want to think of democracy as political equality or mechanisms for building political equality ».


* Tunisia is an American ‘soft power’ success story — keep it that way – The Hill, by Safwan Masri, last visited on 19 December 2017.