Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Tunisia

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
En Route to Tunis, Tunisia
February 18, 2014

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hello, everyone. We are doing a background briefing with attribution to Senior State Department Officials One and Two and Senior Administration Official Number One, if Number One participates, as we preview our trip to Tunisia, which we will arrive in the next couple of hours. As you all know, it’s embargoed till we land, but you have no other means of reporting while we’re in the air, so that’s convenient.

And with that, let me turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number One. Also, I know some of you have expressed an interest in talking to Senior State Department – or Senior Administration Official Number One. He’s happy to, off the record, once we’re done doing Tunisia. So let’s do that first, and then we’ll move to any discussion you want to have with him. Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official Two]. Just a few of the basics of why we’re heading to Tunisia at this time. Something funny?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, okay. Well, I appreciate it.

So somewhat unusually, and in a happy way for us, we often find ourselves in the situation of showing up in countries to try to cajole them into taking steps that we want them to take or to deliver hard messages on things that they’ve been doing, and here we find ourselves in the situation of being able to reinforce a very positive message to a government and the Tunisian people, who have taken a number of very important and positive steps in the last month, starting most recently on January 29th when the Jomaa government was formed, after a year in which Tunisia experienced a high degree of political turmoil, 2013. And then following up on that, on February 10th with the completion, ratification of Tunisia’s constitution, which we consider to be a very positive document that contains a number of important protections for basic rights for citizens and that we believe can serve as a model for documents like this that transiting countries in the region can form.

So we’ll be arriving today to reinforce our sort of praise for the steps that they’ve taken, the support for the bilateral relationship between the United States and Tunisia, which has been strong in the aftermath of their 2011 revolution, and to discuss the way that we can work together going forward with the new government that’s in place.

2014 is going to be a very big year. They, under the terms of their constitution, are planning both parliamentary and presidential elections by the end of the year, which we will work with them on through our Embassy in Tunis. And we very much look forward to trying to keep them on this – help them stay on this positive trajectory that they find themselves on.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think you have the schedule. Let me just make sure (inaudible).

QUESTION: Can we look at that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. So I believe you all have the schedule, but just to reiterate for the purposes of the transcript, the Secretary will be meeting with the Tunisian president as well as the prime minister. And he’ll also be holding a meet and greet with our Embassy staff there while we are on the ground. And of course, a press availability with all of you. Okay. With that, let’s turn it over to questions.

QUESTION: So you have no complaints at all with the Tunisians? Everything is honky-dory, 100 percent, everything is fine? Is it? Maybe it is.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So Matt asked if I had any complaints or if everything was perfect in Tunisia. Look, the political turmoil and security challenges that Tunisians faced since 2011 have not entirely been relegated to the past, and I don’t – I would not want to give that impression. Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, a terrorist organization operating inside Tunisia, continues to pose a security threat to the state, and we continue to work with and urge the government to take strong steps to counter them.

Similarly, we continue to urge the government and work with them to hold accountable those responsible for the 2012 attack on our Embassy and on the American School in Tunisia in September of 2011. There have been some steps taken in that regard, but in our view, there is more that could be done, both in terms of arrests and prosecutions, to bring to justice the people who are responsible for that, for those attacks.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: I can’t hear.

QUESTION: Well, you – he just talked about they want them to bring to justice the people who attacked the Embassy and the American School after Benghazi. But I’m asking if they also want the assassinations of leftist political leaders – right, no one’s been arrested for those either, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Did everybody hear the question? So there were at least two high-profile political assassinations in 2013, I think over the summer. I’m, frankly, not sure of the status of those cases, so I don’t want to speculate. But that would be exactly the kind of thing that we would be urging the government to take strong action on. And the new government, frankly, has pledged to do more and better than its predecessors have in this regard, not to tolerate such steps. And we think that’s a very positive message and we want to encourage it and work with them to make it real.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The only thing I’d add, Matt, to your question, obviously everything isn’t perfect in Tunisia. It’s not perfect anywhere. But what is unique or at least striking in particular about Tunisia is the willingness of opposing sides to reach out and show some inclusiveness and cooperation. Countries across North Africa and the Middle East are deeply divided, often between Islamist and secular lines. There’s nothing unique about that.

What’s different in Tunisia, what’s positive and even inspiring in Tunisia is the demonstrated willingness not to take power and hold onto it and see it as a zero-sum game, but to find some degree of compromise, both in terms of the drafting of the constitution and in this case the appointment of a technocratic government, where each side said rather than having an all-out battle for power in this country, let’s agree on a constitution that meets the needs of all, and let’s have free and fair elections that determine the government and the presidency. That’s what’s very positive and I think what will be important for the Secretary to underscore and support.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And just to sort of foot-stomp that, there’s nothing inevitable about things developing in this way. And to remind everyone, in 2012 we had the attacks against our Embassy, which were an incident that was horrible and could have, frankly, been a lot worse if things had not – had things gone in a slightly more violent direction.

In 2013, we had the political assassinations that – Matt, that you mentioned. And we had a degree of political uncertainty that kind of hung over much of the year as the opposition and the government sort of worked through how to figure – put the political situation on a more sustainable path, get a constitution in place, get a more permanent government in place.

Now here we are in 2014 with a constitution, with a government, and with a path to elections by the end of the year that, if things continue on this trajectory, will put Tunisia on a much more sustainable and stable path going forward.

QUESTION: Unlike many of its North African neighbors, Tunisia is not as rich in natural resources. So what can the U.S. do to help this new government with the foreign investment that it will need to meet the expectations of young unemployed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So the government’s made clear that attracting foreign investment is going to be a major priority of its foreign policy. I think as a sort of basic matter, political stability creates an environment in which foreign investment is possible. So the best thing that Tunisia can do would be to continue to remain on this more stable political path to attract foreign investment.

In terms of what the United States can do, we’ve provided on the order of $400 million in bilateral assistance since the revolution in 2011. I would imagine there will be – there’ll be more announcements on that – of that sort throughout the course of the year, but I don't have anything to reveal right now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. I think [Senior State Department Official One]’s first point is the essential one. We all need to see these transitions economically become self-sustainable. They’re only self-sustainable if there’s political stability. You’re right that Tunisia doesn’t have the natural resources of some of its neighbors, but it has a lot of domestic capital, some of which has left the country, just like in other North African countries, pending political stability. And it will come back once investors and the owners of that private capital are convinced that there is political stability in the country. Tourism has also been hurt by a general atmosphere of lack of stability. That would return as well. So obviously there’s a role for the United States, and the Secretary will explore how we can help. [Senior State Department Official One] talked about foreign assistance. The IMF plays a role. There are questions of loan guarantees. But far more important than any of that is bringing about an atmosphere of political stability and that’s what we’re going to do what we can to support.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m just going to add a little detail to the IMF point. I think they have about a $1.75 billion standby agreement with the IMF. But again, the key to sustaining this going forward over the long haul is exactly where your question started, which is attracting the sorts of investment, building domestic industries, the kinds of things that can last, frankly.

QUESTION: I’m not an expert on Tunisia, but as I understand it, obviously it’s been split between the Islamists and the secularists. Just two quick questions: Is Secretary Kerry going to be meeting with Islamists and secularists? Is he going to be making an effort to meet with each side? Can you give us a little bit of context and background about the president and the prime minister, who they are? I think the prime minister is an acting prime minister. And when elections might be, if you can just provide that context.

And then lastly, you said the purpose is to take steps to reinforce the democratic trajectory they’re on. Is there anything specific that you can tell us that you’re going to do to try to do that? Is this just going to be a discussion? Is there going to be any particular steps you’re going to try to take to help them? What are you going to do to help them, beyond having a discussion?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I was just going to start, actually, on the prime minister, because it’s related to the previous point. As you may know, he is actually a businessman. He’s been very successful in the private sector, as are many of the other members of this government, technocratic government. So we think they get it and understand what Tunisia needs to succeed in economic terms. And that is one of the priorities of the prime minister – it’s to bring about stability and a transition to democracy, but it’s also to attract capital and get the business climate started. I think it’s a key aspect of his background. I’ll defer to others on the schedule and who else he’ll be meeting. I believe the answer is just the president and the prime minister, as [Senior State Department Official Two] described.

So --

QUESTION: We didn’t hear that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So just in terms of the schedule, the Secretary will not have outside meetings. He’s meeting the president, he’s meeting the prime minister. He’ll do the meet and greet at the Embassy and the press avail, but it’s a short stop, and he’s not doing other meetings.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: You asked about the political calendar. I don’t think it’s been set at this point. But the constitution calls for elections for both the parliament and the presidency to be held this year, and the government I think is committed to doing that. I just don’t think they’ve set dates at this point.

QUESTION: Just quickly, tell us – tell me something, please, just about the president. Who’s the president? What’s his political background? Where’s he coming from? And is there going to be anything specific you’re going to do to support their transition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Michael, we’ll get you some more on the president.

QUESTION: Just to ask Michael’s question again, can you please tell us anything about what concrete you’re going to try to do to support their transition? Second, has anyone been arrested and has anyone been prosecuted for the September 14th, 2012 attacks on the U.S. Embassy?

And then third, Senior Administration Official pointed out that the transition here is almost unique in that people have found ways to make compromises and not pursued it as a sort of winner-takes-all. To what extent do you think the events in Egypt over the last six, eight months may have influenced the decision making in Tunisia? In other words, looking at the way in which things have played out elsewhere may have given some impetus to the Tunisians to try to find a more compromise-oriented way.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. On the last one, Arshad, I don’t want to speculate specifically at what might have led them down this path of compromise as opposed to the alternatives to it. But as a general rule, I think it would be fair to surmise that they have looked around and concluded that – not just in sort of contemporary looking around, but looking back to the past as well – that efforts to govern that are not inclusive are also not sustainable. And again, as they look horizontally and then they look back in time, they seem to be reaching the conclusion, which we believe is the right one, that there is a better chance of ensuring long-term stability by finding a more consensual basis rather than trying to dominate the opposition. And that’s what we’re – that’s what we welcome, and that’s one of the reasons the Secretary wanted to go and support this transition, which goes back to I guess part of Michael’s question that we didn’t answer, and your first one as well, in terms of specifics.

One of the things I think the Secretary will want to do is hear from them about how we can support this transition. We’ve already noted – maybe unique is too strong, but what’s particular about it and what’s positive about it. And I think the Secretary will want to hear from the prime minister the ways he thinks we can be helpful for the approach that we’re supporting. And whether that will come in terms of specific economic or political initiatives, we’ll see. But he’s here to listen and find out what more we can do to make sure that Tunisia not only succeeds itself but becomes a model for the neighbors.

I don’t have an answer to your second question. We can obviously get it for you, the second question about prosecutions in the Embassy attacks. I don’t know if you have --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I mean, we should get you the details. Our general impression is that there have been some steps taken, but those who have been tried, the sentences have not been as long as would have liked and there haven’t been as many people brought – either arrested or prosecuted as we think should have been, given the attacks that took place.

One other thing I wanted to clarify and then turn this thing over to [Senior State Department Official Two]. The president, Ghannouchi, is a member of the Ennahda Party, which is the primary Islamist party. What’s that?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sorry, Marzouki. Oh, sorry. Okay. Let me get back to you on the presidency. Sorry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So just one piece that the Secretary will be announcing today is our first strategic dialogue with Tunisia. So he’ll talk about that in his press avail remarks today, but obviously that’s a significant step in terms of our engagement and efforts to coordinate moving forward.

QUESTION: Sorry, just one quick follow-up. There was some sentiment in Congress after the attack on the Embassy to cut back on aid. Do you think that you’re over that or do you think that it will be maybe hard sledding to get additional money out of Congress for Tunisia?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t want to speculate on that. I would say I think Congress, like the Administration, has taken note of the positive developments and will want to support them. But beyond that, I don’t want to comment.

QUESTION: Can you describe what our policy is now towards the Ennahda Party? They did come to Washington kind of early on to try to establish some good relations with White House, State Department as a Muslim Brotherhood spinoff. What’s the impression of how they’re handling the transition period?

And also, to the Senior State Department Official, can you give us a breakdown on the $400 million? How much of that is CT? How much of it is economic assistance? And also, I don’t know if you know what year that was and what it was before, just to get a sense of if that’s an increase from what it was before.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So we talked about the spirit of consensus that has led to this agreed constitution and transition and electoral period, and Ennahda was part of that. They were in power and have chosen, rather than to cling to it or try to establish sort of exclusive perspective over the constitution and the process, to be part of that consensus-building process. And we believe that’s a positive step and support it. That’s the sort of compromise we think these societies need more of rather than less.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I just – I would add that Deputy Secretary Burns was in Tunisia at the beginning of the month, I think around February 1st or 2nd, and he did have meetings with Ennahda senior officials. I think he met with the president – Ennahda president I just mentioned, Ghannouchi. Your other question was about the $400 million and how it’s broken down. I don’t have that information, but we can try to find it for you.

QUESTION: Do you have a sense of how the support has changed, (inaudible) CT?


QUESTION: Thanks. Can you just describe what it means to actually launch a strategic dialogue with a country? What does that practically mean to people who don’t know the bureaucratic speak?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Having participated in dozens of them – look, it’s a way of acknowledging the importance of the relationship and often providing an institutional forum to make sure that, at high levels, we hear them and they hear us. Now, obviously, you can have lots of diplomatic engagement activity and exchanging of views with countries with which you don’t have a strategic dialogue. But this sort of locks it in and makes sure – because it’s easy in the press of business and with so many countries out there to not having those conversations that you need to have. So when you’re elevate it to a strategic dialogue, it’s institutional, it’s locked in, it’s regular, and both sides get a chance to listen and speak to each other.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I mean, to put it somewhat, I guess, succinctly, I think it means more frequent meetings with more senior people.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: So the formation of – I mean, option of the constitution and formation of the interim cabinet is a positive step, yet this government is interim and there are elections coming up, and that could possibly open up for another sort of dispute between the Islamists and the secular rivals, in a way.

And there was a recent poll saying that a third of Tunisians are actually nostalgic for Ben Ali because of security concerns, not stemming only from al-Qaida threats, but just of gang violence and just lack of stability on the streets. So aside from the political and the economic support that the U.S. might be offering more of throughout the year, would there be – are you considering any sort of support in terms of boosting security somehow, helping them do that in a way? Is that an option?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, I can start. Look, I don’t think anybody is saying, and we don’t want to suggest somehow, that everything is perfect, it’s all set. You’re right, there are still deep divisions in society, as in many other places. There will be elections. First they need to agree on an electoral law and pass it and put it in place. Then they need to have free and fair elections, and those elections will be contested.

But I think the point is simply having faith in the process. The constitution was a work of compromise, and we can’t ask more than to have a balanced, inclusive constitution, and a free and fair electoral process in which all the parties get to run and there is an agreement to respect the results of that election. So again, we want to be careful that we’re not suggesting that harmony and peace has broken out and there won’t be further conflict or challenges in Tunisia. There will be, but this is really all you can ask for in what they’ve delivered.

QUESTION: So the initial success of this interim government, I think, would be key towards a successful election. So what can the U.S. do to ensure that the Tunisian citizens feel more stability in terms of security before the elections? What options does the U.S. have?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I just wanted to add one thing on your previous question. I don’t think anybody can or should expect that the balance of power and the sort of vision for the future of Tunisian society that’s playing out between Islamists, seculars, and people of varying political stripes is going to be determined immediately or even over the course of this very consequential political year. It’s going to be something that plays out over, I think, a period of years. But the key, from our perspective, is it’s going to play out in the framework of a constitution that is strong and under a democratic rubric. So those are sort of very important positive steps that will shape that in a fundamentally better direction than it could have otherwise been.

In terms of what we can do to help ensure the success of the interim government, I would come back to the support that we’ve been providing, some of which – and then there will be an announcement related to some support that we’re providing on the security front that will come a little bit later today, but that’s been a part of our support all the way through since the revolution. The dialogue that we’re going to be launching will allow us to provide consultation on both their democratic development and security issues, as well as how they can build their economy and attract foreign investment. They have declared that security and economics are going to be the focus of – or they would like them to the focus of that strategic dialogue.

So at the end of the day, to a very large extent, this is going to be up to the interim government to deliver for their people, as it is in all countries. But we are going to be with them every step of the way, through our Embassy, through our people back in Washington who work on these issues.