- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Sen. John McCain vowed Tuesday that Congress will restore Tunisian aid cuts that were proposed by President Trump as a top official said U.S. support is critical to keep reforms alive and spur new economic growth.

The fight over new funding in the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget comes as the small North African nation deals with the continuing threat of terrorism and the prospect of thousands of Tunisian recruits to Islamic State potentially returning home as the terror group loses its territorial base in Iraq and Syria.

“Haven’t we learned the lessons?” Mr. McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation. “To slash U.S. assistance to a democratic partner on the front lines of the fight against ISIS would be both misguided and dangerous.”

Mr. Trump’s budget blueprint released this spring proposed sweeping cuts to the State Department and U.S. foreign aid programs, adding $54 billion to the Pentagon while proposing to trim the State Department budget by 28 percent.

Tunisia was not spared — the Trump budget called for just $54.4 million in economic and other support for Tunisia, down from $177 million in fiscal 2016.

The sharp across-the-board cuts have been met with bipartisan resistance, especially in the Senate where a group of 43 senators sent a letter to the White House in April vowing to restore the cuts.

Nearly seven years after the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor instigated the Arab Spring, Tunisia ranks as one of the most stable and democratic nations in the region — a “relative success story,” according to Amnesty International, at a time when other pro-democracy movements fizzled.

Since former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled during the 2011 protests, the nation has ratified a new constitution and elected President Beji Caid Essebsi, who has formed a coalition government. Local elections to be held later this year will further decentralize power in the nation, said Youssef Chahed at the Heritage forum. Mr. Chahed has been chief of government since August 2016.

But that doesn’t mean Tunisia’s gains are immune to the problems posed by a faltering economy, Mr. Chahed said.

“We feel that our new democracy can be seriously challenged if our economy fails to respond to stimuli,” he said, citing high unemployment among young college graduates.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the Tunisian unemployment rate is 14 percent, but for young people the jobless rate is 37.6 percent. One proposed cut in the Trump budget cut 62 percent from the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative, which includes popular exchange programs for Tunisian and other regional youth.

The economy has grown by an average of 1 percent each year since the new government took power — far below the prerevolution 5 percent growth annual average. To revive the economy, Mr. Chahed said, the government hopes to expand international trade and attract foreign investors.

But the security forces now consume 17 percent of the national budget to battle Tunisia’s biggest threat of all: terrorism. No major terror incident has occurred in the country since 2015, but ISIS’ presence in neighboring Libya and elsewhere in the region jeopardizes Tunisia’s stability, Mr. Chahed said.

“There’s no doubt that Tunisia still has a long way to go,” said Joshua Meservey, senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation. People in the poorer interior have felt cut off from the “economic engines” on the coast, he said, and Tunisian government is under pressure to ensure that economic growth reaches everyone in the country.

“They have a closing window of opportunity,” Mr. Meservey said, noting that the government turnover raised expectations — and thus frustration when reforms weren’t achieved.

Given the stakes in Tunisia, Mr. Meservey said he was doubtful Mr. Trump’s budget cuts will go into effect.

“Certainly not all of these cuts, or even any of them, are going to happen,” he said.

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