President Barack Obama pledged U.S. support for Tunisia’s political and economic development as he welcomed the North African nation’s prime minister to the White House for a meeting steeped in symbolism.
Tunisia sparked the wider democracy movement now known as the Arab Spring when citizens took to the streets in January to protest their authoritarian government, headed by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He fled to Saudi Arabia, and his removal made Tunisia the first Arab Spring country to overthrow its longtime leader. It also will be the first to hold free elections to emerge from the movement, with voters set to cast ballots on Oct. 23.
Because of those milestones, Obama said he wanted Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi to be the first of the new generation of Arab Spring leaders to be recognized with an Oval Office meeting.
“Tunisia has been an inspiration to all of us who believe that each individual man and woman has certain inalienable rights, and those rights must be recognized by a government that is responsive and democratic,” Obama said.
He also said that the United States was “deeply encouraged” by the progress his country has made since the revolution that set off the Arab Spring.
The president said the U.S. would play a strong, supportive role as Tunisia transitions toward full democracy. Following the meeting, the White House announced plans to work with Congress to provide up to $30 million in loan guarantees to Tunisia and to launch a $20 million Tunisia Enterprise Fund to support private sector growth.
In addition, the Peace Corps will return to Tunisia starting early next year, with volunteers focusing on English language training and youth development programs.
The White House says the U.S. already has committed more than $55 million in nonsecurity assistance to Tunisia since January.
Meanwhile, Essebsi expressed Tunisians’ “gratitude” for U.S. help as he met with Obama in the Oval Office for talks which come two weeks ahead of key October 23 elections in his nation.
It was his first trip to the White House as prime minister since the fall of the regime of Ben Ali.
Obama praised what he described as an orderly run-up to this month’s elections of a constituent assembly, which will write a new constitution and organize elections for parliament and a new president.
“The prime minister and I had an excellent discussion about both the opportunities and the challenges that Tunisia faced going forward and how the United States can be a helpful partner in that process,” the president said.
Essebsi, 84, a career diplomat who became prime minister in February, praised Obama as “having been the first to salute the change” in his country.
“In reality, the Arab Spring so far is a Tunisian Spring. I hope it will become an Arab Spring if certain conditions are met, including the success of the Tunisian revolution and the success of the democratic process in Tunisia.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. role in supporting the pro-democracy movement has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the Obama administration’s opposition to a statehood push by the Palestinians. The U.S. threat to veto such a resolution at the United Nations Security Council has damaged America's image in the Middle East, giving credence to the notion that the U.S. puts its relationship with Israel above other countries.