Today, ahead of the Tunisian Prime Minister’s visit to the White House, we are pleased to have a guest blog from Ann Wyman. Ann is a Senior Advisor at Gatehouse Advisors in London, and a Senior Officer at AfricInvest, a Pan-African Private Equity Fund, based in Tunis. She is also a member of the board of the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund.
Last weekend, my nine-year-old daughter’s homework assignment was to have her photo taken sitting atop Roman ruins. (Since we currently live minutes from Carthage, Tunisia, the logistics involved were thankfully less cumbersome than they might sound). The photo shoot was meant to help her class understand that the Tunisia they inhabit today is built on thousands of years of history, and has been influenced by many civilizations based well beyond its shores. Indeed, Tunisia’s rich past has been constructed with inspiration from Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Europeans, all mingling with an indigenous Berber culture.
Today, Tunisians are again building history. After a popular revolution in 2011 that saw the overthrow of more than two decades of dictatorship, the country has now adopted an admirable new constitution and managed a peaceful transfer of power to a technocratic government ahead of fresh elections, expected by year-end. In this transition phase, Tunisians are turning once more to their own history as well as looking outward for inspiration in their construction plans for a new brand of democracy in the Arab world—one that for now appears to be on a more stable path than other post-revolutionary countries in the region.
It is in this context that the U.S. relationship with Tunisia is taking on increased importance. Yesterday saw the launch of the first-ever U.S. Strategic Dialogue with Tunisia in Washington, and today Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa will make a historic visit to the White House to meet with President Obama. Discussions will center on potential areas of political, economic and security cooperation.
All of these fronts are important, and the work to be done is plentiful. The economic challenges facing Tunisia today are profound: Fiscal finances are deeply strained, youth unemployment—a root cause of revolution—remains stubbornly high, and security risks (and perceptions thereof) remain an important impediment to long-term investment. The risks around new elections, and campaign financing in their run-up, are particularly important given nascent democratic institutions.
There is much the United States can do. The provision of a $30 million sovereign loan guarantee, the creation of a $100 million Enterprise Fund, and small direct budget support have all provided much-needed assistance in recent years. Moreover, the State Department’s removal of its travel warning just last week is an important step toward generating confidence that Tunisia is open and safe for business and tourists alike.
But even larger direct economic support—at both the general budget level, and through more extensive technical assistance and educational support programs—is still required. Moreover, a reinvigoration of negotiations around trade agreements—under the current Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), and looking toward the possibility of a full-fledged Free Trade Agreement (FTA)—could provide incentives for economic and regulatory policy reforms, especially if agreements are well constructed, and take into account lessons learned from other arrangements in the region.
Greater cooperation to improve perceptible security—mostly notably in Tunisia’s major ports and airports which remain woefully under-protected—could also help to increase the confidence of investors, tourists and Tunisian citizens alike. And both countries would benefit from enhanced sharing of intelligence on extremists and their networks—many operating in Tunisia’s immediate neighborhood.
Finally, the importance of communications and messaging cannot be underestimated. Secretary Kerry’s invitation to Tunisian leadership and members of civil society to visit Washington is an important marker of visible U.S. support for Tunisia’s hard-won progress toward creating a fair, and uniquely Arab democracy. At a time of global turmoil, the United States needs success stories for its encouragement of pluralistic, reform-minded countries. Tunisia is one, and it deserves U.S. support.
When he returns to Tunisia, Prime Minister Jomaa will be able to spot those Roman ruins where my daughter sat last weekend as he lands at Carthage Airport. In the aftermath of his trip to Washington, I hope he’ll be thinking about how this next chapter in Tunisian history will be built, at least in part, with American support this time.