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U.S. Bets On Egypt While Ignoring Tunisia's Success

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Thursday morning, before their Oval Office meeting, the presidents of the U.S. and Tunisia joined to co-author a Washington Post op-ed article affirming the closeness and strategic importance of their nations' relationship. Reading it, one might think the two countries are on the same page. Unfortunately, that would be an incorrect analysis. 

“Tunisia shows that democracy is not only possible but also necessary in North Africa and the Middle East,” Barack Obama and Béji Caïd Essebsi wrote. “As Tunisians seek to build the Arab world’s newest democracy, they will continue to have a strong friend and partner in the world’s oldest democracy, the United States of America.” 

Before their meeting, Obama promised long-term security and economic support to Tunisia, told Essebsi that the U.S. was fully committed to his nation's success, and praised Tunisia for being the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

The day before, the Tunisian President had spoken to a packed audience at the United States Institute of Peace, and struck a very different tone. He warned that Tunisia’s progress toward democracy was fragile and its limited success was not a model for the region, because it had not yet succeeded. 

“There is no such thing as an Arab Spring,” he said. “There is a beginning of a Tunisian Spring. If this Tunisian Spring is confirmed, perhaps another day it might become an Arab Spring.” 

Essebsi didn’t want to criticize the U.S. during his visit, and he said he was confident that Obama would live up to his promise to help Tunisia. But he also said that Tunisia is not counting on Washington to ensure its success, because Tunisians realize that the U.S. might not be able to come through in the end. 

“If they help us, fine. If they don’t help us, we are going to stay friends and we will continue on our own,” he said. “Although we know the United States has large means, we know it has other problems and other people around the world to worry about.”

U.S. assistance to Tunisia since 2011 has been heavily weighted to security and counterterrorism, with little going to actually building that country’s civil society or economy. The administration has requested $134 million in assistance for Tunisia next year -- double this year’s funding -- but only 16 percent is designated for democracy and governance programming, according to a newly released report by the Project on Middle East Democracy.

The security focus is understandable; thousands of young Tunisians are rushing to join Islamic extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Two who returned to Tunisia were responsible for the brutal attack on Western tourists at the Bardo museum last month.  But that doesn’t explain the relatively small size of the overall assistance package. 

Former State Department official Tamara Cofman Wittes, now head of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, said that the administration is working now to bolster support for Tunisia but there’s no assurance that the U.S. commitment will be sustained in the long term. 

“The Tunisians have come to understand that while the support is there in principle, it hasn’t been there in practice,” she said.“We only pay attention to the Middle East when it bites us.” 

This aid to Tunisia seems even more paltry when set against U.S. assistance to other countries in the neighborhood, such as Egypt, which by all accounts has been going the wrong way when it comes to democracy, rule of law and human rights. According to the Pomed report, the administration has requested $1.5 billion for Egypt in next years’ budget, of which only $5 million is for democracy and good governance. 

There has been a lot of talk about U.S. “suspension” of aid to Egypt over the last two years, during which the Egyptian military perpetrated a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi (although the U.S. government never officially called it a coup). But Pomed found that even during that period, Egypt received 92 percent of the funding it was expecting, and actually very little was ever really held back. 

“Egypt is fundamentally headed in the wrong direction and Tunisia is heading in the right direction, but the messaging doesn’t reflect that,” said Steve McInerney, Pomed’s executive director.  

Egypt is a much bigger country and more strategic, for sure. But the Obama administration’s focus on countries such as Egypt and their over-dependence on security-related assistance is preventing the U.S. from realizing the new relationship with the Arab world President Obama has been calling for since his famous Cairo speech in 2009.

“The administration is essentially doubling down on the existing approach, a very heavy, overly securitized engagement with the region,” McInerney said. “As a result, Tunisia becomes an afterthought. The only sure way for a country to get more attention from the U.S. is to fall apart and become a crisis zone, and that’s tragic.” 

William Taylor, a former ambassador now at USIP, was the head of the State Department’s Middle East Transitions office in 2011 and 2012. At that time, the administration requested $770 million to help countries such as Tunisia realize their democratic potential and avoid sliding back into authoritarianism (like Egypt) or chaos (like Libya). But Congress never funded that effort, and the administration never followed up.

Taylor told me that the U.S. turn-back to security relationships with countries that don’t share our values is disappointing because it is based on an old way of thinking. If the government was smart, he said, it would realize that in some ways, Tunisia is actually a more promising strategic partner than Egypt.

“The strategic relationship with Egypt is less than meets the eye, but it’s been there for a long time and it hasn’t really been examined,” he said. “There is path dependency. We’ve been doing this for so long we don’t even question it.”

Neither Obama nor Essebsi wanted to acknowledge the real deficiencies in the U.S.-Tunisian relationship, or discuss the contradictions in U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa. But I was in Tunisia earlier this year with a bipartisan Senate delegation that met with Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, the moderate Islamist group that peacefully yielded power last year.

Ghannouchi didn’t mince words. He said that American policy in North Africa, centered around support for the military dictatorship in Egypt, was shortsighted. He said that democracy will take hold in the region, if not soon then eventually, so America might as well bet on that. If we don’t, he said, the people of the region will remember. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net