President Barack Obama said he’ll designate Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally and double military aid to the birthplace of the Arab Spring, which has bred political turmoil in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Obama made the promises after meeting with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi Thursday at the White House. The U.S. is looking to the North African country, which held peaceful elections in December, to help spread stability in a region rife with sectarian strife, terrorism and weak central governments.
“It was very gratifying to hear about the excellent progress that’s been made in Tunisia’s transformation into an inclusive and functioning democracy,” Obama said after meeting with Essebsi in the Oval Office. “The place where the Arab Spring began is the place where we have seen the most extraordinary progress.”
Tunisia joins other nations in the region including Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco designated as major allies outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The status confers greater security cooperation, although it doesn’t provide mutual defense assurances.
Tunisia, which ousted the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, has avoided much of the violence and chaos seen after popular uprisings against established regimes in other countries across the region.
Deadly protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011 gave way to political turbulence, including a military coup and the jailing of two presidents. Militants ousted the president of Yemen, where subsequent sectarian fighting and Saudi Arabia’s intervention with air strikes created a humanitarian crisis.
In Libya, which borders Tunisia, a weak central government has allowed extremist groups including the Islamic State to make gains. The country has become a bane for the Obama administration, which helped topple dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 only to see it descend into sectarian violence and chaos.
Following Tunisia’s new designation the U.S. will consider a loan guarantee of as much as $500 million to support an “ongoing reform program,” according to a White House statement Thursday.
While the U.S. is looking to Tunisia to be a stabilizing force in the region, particularly with Libya, Essebsi has said that his country needs more support and foreign investment before it can play that role.
“In order for us to become a model, let us at least succeed in Tunisia, and we have not succeeded yet,” Essebsi said Wednesday through a translator during a speech at the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded, nonpartisan policy group in Washington. “What we’re asking is just a little more, and perhaps at that point we can step forward a little more.”
Tunisia faces numerous hurdles, including high unemployment, an influx of refugees from Libya and a slowdown in tourism linked to a growing terrorist threat, said Sarah Feuer, a fellow who specializes in North Africa at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a foreign policy think-tank.
“Essebsi will return from his White House visit to a country facing enormous economic and security-related threats to its experiment in democratization,” Feuer wrote in a May 19 report.
Essebsi, elected to a five-year term in December, said refugees are flowing into his country from Libya. More than 1 million refugees have entered, burdening Tunisia’s economy and creating a security threat, he said on Wednesday. “Tunisia is being punished, because we are receiving terrorists and weapons,” Essebsi said.
Designating Tunisia an ally allows the U.S. to provide additional assistance to combat those threats, said William Taylor, acting executive vice president at the USIOP.
“These are the kinds of things that indicate the importance of the Tunisia-America relationship, that don’t cost any money, but send a strong signal,” Taylor, a former State Department official. “Being a major ally is of value to a country as it assesses threats and concerns.”