- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2019

Tunisia has made dramatic strides — with U.S. support — against the threat posed by jihadist terrorists since being labeled just a few years ago as the top source for foreign fighters who’d traveled to join the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

But there’s still a long way to go, and American officials should remain vigilant of extremists’ determination to undermine the tiny North African nation’s fragile democracy, particularly as it heads toward a pivotal election this fall.

That was a core message Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui brought to Washington this week, claiming that a pair of suicide bombings that struck Tunis in late June underscored just how deeply extremist forces in the region “are against the model of the political system we are trying to build.”

Islamic State may well be militarily defeated in Syria and Iraq, “but that does not mean the idea, the threat, is over,” Mr. Jhinaoui told The Washington Times, stressing that Tunisia — the lone beacon of democratic hope left from the otherwise ill-fated Arab Spring of 2011 — remains on the front line and needs America’s help.

His comments came in a wide-ranging interview, during which he downplayed uncertainty over the Trump administration’s budget for assistance to Tunisia and said concerns about his country’s simultaneous pursuit of a growing partnership with China were overblown.

The foreign minister was in Washington to participate in the expanding “U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue” and hold talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Mr. Jhinaoui told The Times he felt Mr. Pompeo “absolutely” grasps how high the stakes are for Tunisia, even as the Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposal calls for cuts to U.S. counter-terrorism aid to Tunis and other Arab capitals.

Overall U.S. assistance, he said, has actually “been growing in the last few years,” both in terms of total aid and the number of Tunisian sectors touched by it. Apart from security aid and training for Tunisian officials guarding the nation’s border with Libya, Mr. Jhinaoui said this week’s dialogue addressed Tunis’ request for more visas for Tunisians to study and do research at U.S. colleges and universities.

“The scope of cooperation is expanding,” he asserted, adding that he’d been informed of plans for an expansion of existing U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) operations in Tunisia. “They will be opening a full mission now in Tunis,” Mr. Jhinaouisaid. “That shows the American interest is growing.”

The foreign minister rejected recent U.S. press reports that claimed anti-Americanism is “on the rise” in Tunisia. “This is not correct,” he told The Times. “I don’t think there is any foundation for that kind of statement.”

Mr. Jhinaoui also downplayed the notion the Tunisia’s recent openness to China signals a turning away from Washington.

In January, the Chinese state news service Xinhua reported that Beijing and Tunis had inked a “economic and technical cooperation agreement.” The service quoted Mr. Jhinaoui as praising Tunisia’s “accession” to China’s Belt and Road foreign policy initiative — an initiative Trump administration officials say is based on predatory lending to gain Beijing access and economic leverage in countries across Asia, eastern Europe and Africa.

Mr. Jhinaoui told The Times that Tunisian engagement with China is limited at best, although he suggested his nation, which badly needs infrastructure investment and has an unemployment rate above 15 percent, would be imprudent not to welcome Chinese help. But he stressed there’s “no comparison whatsoever” in terms of Tunisia’s relationship with the United States.

“There is a big difference between a country which is landing and giving support to Tunisia now to fight an important threat, which is terrorism, and that’s the United States — a core, very important partner of Tunisia — and China, a friendly country with whom we have a good relationship,” Mr. Jhinaoui said.

The hope in Tunis, he added, is that Washington will “continue supporting the Tunisian experience until it gets matured and we have a full-fledged democracy.”

Big test at the polls

It’s a pursuit that faces a big test in October, when Tunisians go to the polls to elect a successor to President Beji Caid Essebsi. The 92-year-old has been the nation’s first freely-elected leader since 2014, when he was voted in after a largely peaceful, albeit chaotic revolution that brought the downfall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

What comes next will depend heavily on the new government’s ability to generate economy and jobs for the nation’s 12 million people, roughly 40 percent of whom are under the age of 25.

“We cannot have a full-functioning democracy unless the economy has been revived and is delivering to the expectation of young people looking for jobs,” said Mr. Jhinaoui. “We need foreign investment and we need more American companies to be visible and present in Tunisia to make business, earn money and also help Tunisians having the right jobs.”

The biggest opportunities, he said, are in the energy, renewable energy, information technology and pharmaceutical sectors. American firms, he added, could benefit from Tunisia’s quest for free-trade deals across Africa — essentially to create a legal framework for U.S. companies to use the nation as a base for wider operations on the continent.

“We are giving a kind of platform to American companies to explore developing their business inside Africa,” Mr. Jhinaoui said. “We know that America is interested in Africa, we can offer that platform.”

But all of it is going require security stability in Tunisia, a quest made more difficult by the post-Arab Spring violence and instability of neighboring Libya.

In 2015-2016, Tunisia emerged with the unwanted distinction of being the single largest source of foreign fighters for Islamic State. Jihadist attacks in Tunisia during those years threatened tourism, upon which much of the economy depends in the sun-drenched nation known for its beaches and historic villages on the southern Mediterranean.

As Islamic State’s Syria-Iraq “caliphate” collapsed, concerns mounted that radicalized Tunisian fighters might flow homeward, fears that only surged in late June when two suicide bombings targeted security forces in central Tunis.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed a police officer and injured several other people.

“Our Tunisian forces have become much better trained and much better equipped and were able in the last few years to prevent any such attack, but that doesn’t mean we are 100% immune,” said Mr. Jhinaoui. “[The] threat is still there because of the simple reason that Tunisia is building a new democracy and terrorism is trying its best to deny whatever progress is made in that direction.”

“Tunisia is living in a very difficult neighborhood,” he added. “Libya is still a kind of playing ground for these terrorist groups. They will continue to try, but compared to many other countries Tunisia is much safer today. It’s doing its best to secure its own citizens, but also its guests. Tourist sites are well protected and we are doing our best to avoid such kinds of threats.”

“If we are able to defeat terrorism in Tunisia, that means we are in one way or another protecting our friends in Europe from the threat posed by terrorists,” Mr. Jhinaoui added. “We cannot, you know, undertake it alone … We still need the cooperation of our friends from the United States and from Europe.”

“It is important for America to stand with Tunisia, because we are trying in that part of the world for the first time to build a new democratic system espousing the universal values of freedom of expression, political competition and giving the opportunity to the people to choose their own government, democratically and transparently,” Mr. Jhinaoui said.

“That’s of course good for Tunisians, but also it’s good for the whole region, including for the United States because if we succeed, that’s another battle against dictatorship that has been won [and] because democracy is the best tool to fight terrorism and extremism.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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