Tunisian PM Visits the United States

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

July 14, 2017

The Tunisian prime minister has just ended a series of high-level meetings in Washington. Coming amid domestic calls for cutting U.S. foreign aid to a number of countries, including Tunisia, there is little doubt as to what would have been on Mr. Youssef Chahed’s agenda. Tunisia has been widely hailed as one of the few success stories to come out of the Arab Spring; unlike others in the region, the government has had some success in providing security and economic stability. But the country continues to suffer protests against government policies, and Tunis is under pressure from the international community to begin repaying its debts.


On the eve of the visit, the Tunisian state news agency TAP noted that Prime Minister Youseff Chahed’s  visit to Washington D.C. “coincides with the celebration of the 220th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Tunisia and the United States of America, [and] will ‘revive consultations on ways to further consolidate Tunisia-USA cooperation and partnership.’ …  ‘Essentially political’, the [Tunisian government] said, the visit will be an opportunity for the Prime Minister to meet senior officials of the new Trump administration. He will meet with U.S. Vice President Michael R. Pence and members of the U.S. Congress….This trip, the first of Youssef Chahed as Prime Minister, comes at a time when the new budget of the Trump administration for the year 2018 provides for a significant reduction of the military and economic aid to Tunisia.”

The potential loss of aid comes at a time when many are concerned over Tunisia’s “inability to repay external debt.” Asharq Alawsat’s AlMunji alSaidani reports: “In recent years, Tunisia has relied on external debt to finance the state budget and provide public expenditure, which accumulated the volume of debt from year to year to exceed 50 billion Tunisian dinars (about $20 billion). However, the announcement by Tunisia’s Central Bank of the decline in foreign reserves of foreign currency fueled fears that there may be difficulties in repaying external debts within the deadlines….Tunisia has faced direct criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) missions that have visited it over the past months because it is spending the loans to provide wages for public sector employees instead of employing them in development projects capable of providing employment to more than 630,000 unemployed citizen. These difficulties are reflected in the repayment of foreign debts through Tunisia’s difficult economic and financial indicators.”

Tunisia’s financial problems have had serious impact on the country’s public health infrastructure, which, as Khaleej Times’ Kaouther Larbi points out, has become a matter of national concern for the country: “Overcrowded hospitals, exhausted staff and disgruntled patients … Tunisia’s public health sector is struggling to heal its many maladies. Hours of waiting for treatment, angry patients and broken equipment have become chronic problems…. Today, the North African country’s 11 million people are served by some 166 hospitals and 2,100 health centers, according to official figures. But public health services have deteriorated since the 1990s and are failing to meet modern demand, according to a report last year by the health section of the powerful UGTT union…. The sector suffers from corruption, regional inequalities in access to advanced equipment and ‘medical deserts’ — entire regions suffering a scarcity of healthcare professionals.”

The agitated and unstable state of Tunisian politics, reported on here by Asharq Alawsat, is also reflected in last week’s protests against the government’s arrests of “dozens for protesting illegal stalls…. The governorate of Tunis was alerted on June 19 of the uncontrolled exploitation of public places, prompting it to set an ultimatum of five days for illegal street vendors to vacate the area. The protests were also instigated by the Tunisia’s government’s decision on Sunday to cut fuel subsidies, raising petrol prices by 6.7 percent in an effort to trim its budget deficit. Authorities lifted the price of unleaded petrol from 1.650 dinars per liter to 1.750. The last increase in fuel prices was in 2014. The Energy Ministry said in a statement that it has decided to increase the prices of unleaded fuel and diesel by 100 milims and 90 milims respectively, while keeping the prices of other petroleum products unchanged.”

The protests follow similar ones during the month of Ramadan, when, according to Al Arabiya news, protestors were demanding “the right to eat and drink in public during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and to protest against non-fasters being arrested. There is no law against eating or drinking in public during Ramadan, but every year the issue comes to the fore in the North African country. Tunisia’s constitution guarantees ‘freedom of belief and conscience’, but the state is also the ‘guardian of religion’…. Since the 2011 revolution there have been calls for the right not to fast, but this was the first time such a demonstration has taken place in Tunisia….Most cafes and restaurants in Tunisia close during the day in Ramadan, and those that open do so discreetly. As this year’s fasting month began, a media-oriented preacher went around cafes open during the day to record footage of clients and shame them in a move that was heavily criticized on social networks.”

Meanwhile, the government continues to be actively engaged in a battle with Islamist terrorists. While Tunisia has been spared much of the violence of its neighbors, Prime Minister Chahed pled for more support from Washington. The Tunisian news agency reported that “Exchanges of fire between the National Guard forces and a terrorist group took place Tuesday near the border guard station in the Boudarias locality in the Foussana delegation in Kasserine governorate, The Interior Ministry said in a statement, specifying that the terrorist group had fled to the mountains in the direction of the Algerian territory. According to the same source, the terrorist group was observing the border guard post of Boudarias and the nearby border posts from a high forest site overlooking the roads and the trails leading to the security units.”

Al Monitor’s Ahmed Nadhif suggests that the continuing threat posed by Islamist elements inside and outside of Tunisia is behind the government’s controversial law “ordering all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to declare all funds they receive from abroad and threatened to prosecute any party that failed to comply. The move, unprecedented since the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, has sparked controversy in the local civil society sector…. Since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime in 2011 and the prevailing climate of openness in the country, NGO activities have flourished in various parts of the country and many sectors…. Most of them carry out religious and preaching activities and emerged like a tsunami after the revolution. They benefited from the leniency shown during the rule of the Ennahda movement between 2012 and 2013. Official statements by Tunisia’s Minister for Government Relations with Civil Society Kamel al-Jandoubi indicate that since 2015, many of these religious associations have been involved in sending thousands to war and conflict zones and maintaining relations with terrorist groups.”

In an op-ed for The National, Rashmee Roshan Lall argues that despite these challenges, “a sense of change infuses the air…. there is the government’s vigorous campaign against corruption. With Tunisia’s young prime minister, Youssef Chahed, leading the charge, the administration began arresting mafia bosses and smuggling barons in May. It has kept up the heat since. The prime minister has even cast corruption as a security issue, saying he is ‘persuaded there is a link between smuggling, terrorism financing, cross-border activities and also capital flight’. The cumulative effect of such fighting talk has been a substantial increase in the prime mister’s popularity. It is also energizing the people of the country that became the role model for the Arab world with its 2011 Jasmine Revolution, only to be miserably denied the economic and governance dividends of democracy, while terrorism subsequently savaged its crucial tourism sector. For the first time in six years, there is a quickening sense of the possibilities of real change.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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