Tunisian PM visits White House as Washington focuses on North Africa

One of the most pressing issues during Mehdi Jomaa's visit is how the US can bolster an economy that threatens to undo the Arab Spring’s only success story.

Barack Obama and Tunisia's prime minister Mehdi Jomaa in the Oval Office. Mr Jomaa was the first Tunisian leader to visit Washington since 1990.  Larry Downing / Reuters / April 4, 2014
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Foreign Correspondent

NEW YORK // Tunisia’s caretaker prime minister met Barack Obama on Friday at the White House for talks that underscore Washington’s increased focus on the Maghreb at a time of increasing instability in the region.

In the first strategic dialogue between the countries, counter-terrorism cooperation was likely a central issue. But perhaps the most pressing is how America can help bolster the staggering Tunisian economy that threatens to undo the country’s fragile democratic transition and the Arab Spring’s only success story.

Mehdi Jomaa is the first Tunisian leader to travel to Washington for a state visit since 1990 when the trip was made by the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted from power in January 2011.

Mr Jomaa was set to ask Mr Obama for loan guarantees and financial assistance as he works to plug a projected US$5 billion (Dh18.4bn) budget shortfall this year.

"We are looking for more investment and for support for the budget," Mr Jomaa told the Washington Post.

“We have a good political relationship [with the US], and we are looking to build a long-term economic relationship.”

The Tunisian prime minster also met IMF and World Bank officials who released hundreds of millions in loans after Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly passed a widely praised constitution that was crafted by Islamist, secular and leftist parties after contentious negotiations.

The country is being led by Mr Jomaa’s technocratic interim government as it prepares for new elections by the end of this year, after three years of transition that has failed to address the economic crisis while temporarily solving a political standoff between Islamists and secularists that had been marred by assassinations, terrorism and social unrest.

“Right now Tunisia is in a very consequential moment in its post-revolution history,” said William Lawrence, a professor at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Security has gotten better, the economy has gotten worse [and] although Tunisians are happy with the recent political deal and constitutional breakthrough, politics is no less polarised.”

Although the political compromise led to the new constitution and the Islamist Ennahda party ceding power to Mr Jomaa’s government, there is still deep mistrust between secularists, leftists and Islamists, as well as continuing alienation of the rural hinterlands from the more developed coastal cities.

The crucial unanswered question, Mr Lawrence said, is whether Mr Jomaa’s technocratic government will be able to balance the major structural reforms that will be requirements of IMF loans, with government spending necessary to bring quick stability.

The protests that brought down the Ennahda government were animated by demands for more jobs and against cutting subsidies to fuel and food. The 2014 budget is projected to increase by about 80 per cent this year because of subsidy increases and the expansion of the civil service workforce to 700,000 — nearly double the number of workers actually needed, the finance minister has said.

“If you start slashing the things they want from government, you’re going to start having more instability,” Mr Lawrence said. “Tunisia ultimately needs to avoid short-term austerity, but to have long-term policies that will get the budget under control.”

Tunisian officials have also clamped down on unregulated commerce, such as street vendors, as they try to expand development and attract foreign investment. But nearly half of Tunisia’s workforce are employed by this untaxed sector.

A lack of government jobs and cracking down on the informal sector “was the very double whammy that led Bouazizi and other young Tunisians to self immolate”, Mr Lawrence said.

For Washington, Tunisia is perhaps the only bright spot amid the post-Arab Spring turmoil, and Mr Obama would like to reward Tunisia’s Islamist and secular parties for seeking compromise.

“The strategic dialogue is a reward, the carrot in a sense, for Tunisia to keep going on the positive path it is on now,” said Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.

US officials have been critical of Egypt’s interim government and fear the alienation of Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups from the democratic process will lead to increased terrorism and instability across North Africa, where Al Qaeda and related groups have made recent gains.

“The US perception of what’s going on in Tunisia is informed by what’s going on in Egypt,” Mr El Amrani said. “They wanted to ensure that the Egyptian scenario of polarisation and military intervention would not be repeated.”

The strategic dialogue with Mr Jomaa could also be read as a message for Cairo.

“Look at what we’re doing for Tunisia, these guys sat together and reached a compromise, and in no time we’re giving them a state visit and we’re asking them ‘what do you need?’ and urging our partners to give them all these things,” said Mokhtar Awad, a fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, also visited Algeria and Morocco this week, for talks with leaders that had been long delayed by more pressing developments in the Middle East.

“We really need the countries that have the capacity to be stable to expand the rights that people are enjoying, to put in place the political and economic and civil society kinds of reforms that strengthen them for the long run, and also to provide economic opportunity,” Mr Kerry said on Thursday in Rabat.

While both countries avoided revolutions during the Arab Spring, there has been recent political turbulence, especially in Algeria where a presidential election looms as well as a military leadership succession.

Algeria in particular is strategically important as a major natural gas supplier to Europe, a role that has taken on added importance as European Union ties with Russia, another crucial gas supplier, fray. Mr Kerry likely addressed the issue in his meetings in Algiers, which included talks with the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The US-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership includes Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and Washington is hoping to strengthen the countries’ abilities on issues ranging from security cooperation to rural development and the economy to countering arms and drugs trafficking and border control.

“We’re in a more precarious situation in North Africa than usual and all the geopolitical and strategic interests make it more important than usual for the US and Europe,” Mr Lawrence said. “The threats of terrorism … and the deepening need for socioeconomic intervention to address the underlying causes of political discontent and alienation have raised the stakes across the Sahara and Sahel regions.”