- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2019

A high-level strategic dialogue planned for next week between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Tunisia’s foreign minister has been postponed, officials said Friday, a day after Islamic State suicide bombings rocked the North African nation.

Unease over Thursday’s twin bombings targeting police in the Tunisian capital has been amplified because the attacks came on the same day Tunisia’s 92-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, fell ill and was hospitalized.

Mr. Essebsi, whose hospitalization was unrelated to the bombings, was reported to be recovering Friday. But Tunisian officials said fallout over the Islamic State attacks would delay the planned U.S-Tunisia dialogue that had been slated to occur Monday and Tuesday in Washington.

“It’s because of the security developments,” a Tunisian official told The Washington Times on background, explaining that Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui has delayed his trip to Washington because he is a member of Tunisia’s security council, which is scrambling to respond to Thursday’s terrorist attacks.

“We’ve informed the State Department that the dialogue is going to be postponed and we’re looking forward to having it rescheduled as soon as possible,” said the official.

There was no immediate comment from the State Department.

While the strategic dialogue delay is not expected to set back for U.S.-Tunisia relations, Thursday’s bombings underscored the security challenges faced by the North African nation at a delicate moment for the Trump administration, which has claimed victory over the Islamic State in recent months.

Tunisia’s stability has been a high priority for Washington during the years since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that started in Tunis and overthrew the country’s longstanding dictatorship.

Widely seen as the star performer of otherwise ill-fated democracy movements that rocked the region, Tunisia also bears the troublesome distinction of later becoming the single largest source of foreign fighters that joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq during the years that followed the Arab Spring.

With Islamic State territory recaptured over the past two years, concerns have skyrocketing that radicalized Tunisian members of the terror group could return home and establish a foothold threatening the ability of Tunisia’s fragile democracy to attract much-needed foreign investment.

Tunisian counterterrorism forces have sharply cracked down on extremists in recent years, receiving U.S. and German support for high-tech security along Tunisia’s border with Libya, where militancy has been flourishing.

Terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 in Tunisia 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 coast.

As for Thursday’s bombings, Islamic State claimed responsibility through its Amaq news agency, according to Reuters, which reported that the attacks had killed one police officer and injured several other people.

The strikes came at the peak of Tunisia’s tourist season that officials have hoped would bring a record number of visitors and an economic boost for the country. The attacks also come a few months ahead of sensitive elections in Tunisia.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Essebsi’s illness might affect the timing of the upcoming elections, which are slated for October and are expected to be pivotal in transitioning Tunisia to the next phase of its democracy.

Mr. Essebsi became Tunisia’s first freely-elected leader in 2014, following a largely peaceful, albeit chaotic revolution that brought the downfall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who’d ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for more than two decades.

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