Tunisian Prime Minister Chahed Visit to Washington and Tunisian-American Relations

Written by Camille Ford [i] on July 20th, 2017

This paper is based on a conversation with Sarah Yerkes[ii] from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed paid an official visit to Washington to meet with members of the Trump Administration, congress, and think tanks, this past Monday, July 11th. The visit was characterized by positive interactions and discussions, despite the absence of both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Prime Minister Chahed’s brief visit was spent re-emphasizing the importance of the Tunisian-American relationship that dates back to 1795, as well as highlighting the obstacles facing Tunisia, as it seeks to further consolidate its newly established democracy.

During the various meetings held, the Prime Minister outlined three major challenges facing Tunisia today. They relate to security, corruption and economic reform.

On the security front, Tunisia has undertaken serious counter-terrorism measures as emphasized by the Prime Minister. At its borders with Libya in the south, Tunisia is facing the emergence of ISIS cells, as well as an expansive network of illegal trade and smuggling. On the border with Algeria, in the west, Tunisian and Algerian forces have come together to contain a small Al-Qaeda outgrowth. While Tunisian armed forces have achieved successes in securing their borders, the greatest challenge for the new democracy has been walking the line between respecting human rights and enforcing strict security rules. American aid has been particularly noted on the security front. American financial assistance and military technology have indeed significantly contributed to the successes of the Tunisian security forces, and it seems that Tunisia will continue to receive U.S. assistance.

With regard to the scourge of corruption, Prime Minister Chahed was particularly insistent on the necessity, and popularity among Tunisians, of the anti-corruption measures that he has taken. This si illustrted among others by the recent arrest bay the Tunisian government of several powerful businessmen on suspicion of involvement in corruption. The most notable arrest has been that of Chafik Jarraya, who is accused of collaborating with Libyan jihadist groups, which highlights the connection between corruption, illegal business practices and security; and Tunisia’s fight against corruption can only be supported by the U.S., as it is by international financial organizations, such as the IMF, on which Tunisia depends.

Our interlocutor, Sarah Yerkes, however, has expressed a certain amount of skepticism towards this so-called “war on corruption”, as the Tunisian Prime Minister labels it. It seems that after this series of arrests, there is no real plan to tackle the roots of corruption which has become widespread in Tunisia. Moreover, the Chahed government has been criticized for their methods of arrest, relying on the state of emergency laws, which remain in place in Tunisia. This has allowed for military trials to be held, rather than civil trials with legal representation for the accused. Above all, Sarah Yerkes emphasized that Tunisia must tread carefully with these trials. In a democracy, anti-corruption laws must be enforced in a manner that respects human rights conventions, and abides by the ideals of democratic government, regardless of the people involved.

With regard to economic issues, Prime Minister visit was followed by the U.S. House of Representative’s decision to reject the foreign aid budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration that, among others, concern Tunisia. While the Prime Minister’s visit was not likely to be the catalyst for this decision, the prompt timing of his U.S. appearance has earned him great praise in Tunisia. Thus, the U.S. will maintain 2017 fiscal year levels of aid for Tunisia, at $165.4 million, and not at $54.4 million as was outlined in the rejected budget proposal.

On the other hand, questions have arisen surrounding the impending economic reconciliation law drafted by Mr. Caid Essebsi’s upon his rise to the presidency of Tunisia in 2014. This controversial law seeks to provide amnesty and anonymity to businessmen associated the old, pre-2011, Ben Ali regime. Essebsi has received criticism for his proposition of this law, which has also been interpreted by many Tunisians as an attempt to undermine the legal accountability of perpetrators of crimes under the old regime.

It is worth noting that this presidential initiative further adds to Mr. Caid Essebsi’s criticism by Tunisians. Not only is he regarded as a symbol of the old regime, but is also attacked for his close relationship with Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda party, and supposed political opponent of his party Nida Tounes, which rules Tunisia with the support of the Islamists, while it ran on an anti-islamist agenda. On July 19th, the Tunisian parliament approved the first part of Essebsi’s economic reconciliation bill, to the dismay of a large number of Tunisians. Sarah Yerkes warns that protests may erupt if the full law is put into effect.

In addition to the three umbrella issues which Mr. Chahed emphasized during his Washington visit, Tunisia also faces more immediate challenges. Later this year, the government has promised to hold municipal elections. The constitution, however, has yet to be amended to include the important decentralization laws necessary for successful elections and governance at the regional level. Sarah Yerkes notes that a failure to draft such laws could undermine decentralization efforts

In conclusion, one can assert that as Tunisia evolves into a fully democratic country, achieving accountability and transparency and moving on with the democratic process in terms of holding local elections and implementing decentralization, remains a challenge for the Northern African state. In order to help consolidate its democracy, other democratic countries, such as the United States, must hold Tunisia to the same standard as they would their other democratic allies, but it must also support Tunisia Tunisia’s democratization and economic development efforts.

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[i] Camille Ford, an International Studies and Islamic Civilizations Double Major at Boston College (Class of 2018), is a Summer 2017 research intern at the Maghreb Center.

[ii] Sarah Yerkes is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. She focuses her research on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa

 

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