WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is providing $500 million in new assistance to Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring movement, to help the North African nation revive its faltering economy as it continues its march toward democracy and financial and political stability after a period of unrest.
President Barack Obama announced the aid Friday as he sat down with Mehdi Jomaa, the country's interim prime minister.
The assistance will be in the form of a U.S. loan guarantee that will make it easier for Tunisia to borrow money. The country is looking to close an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion hole in this year's budget, most likely through borrowing. It is the second loan guarantee the U.S. has provided Tunisia, following a $485 million loan guarantee in 2012.
In remarks before the Oval Office meeting, Obama said the U.S. has a "huge investment in making sure Tunisia's experiment is successful."
The initial promise of the 2011 pro-democracy revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa has faded in many countries, with a military coup in Egypt, a civil war in Syria in its fourth year and militia-fueled chaos dominant in Libya, which shares a border with Tunisia.
The U.S. backed the uprisings and wants to see Tunisia emerge as a success story.
Obama said the country has shown the kind of progress that "all of us have been hoping for," despite the inevitable challenges that are part of any democratic process. He said the "coming together" of various factions in Tunisia and its new constitution that respects the individual rights of men as well as women create "the bedrock, the foundation for a Tunisian society that can thrive in this new global environment."
"We want nothing more than (for) Tunisians to determine their own destiny, for economic reforms to take place to allow Tunisia to be not just self-sufficient, but thriving in the world economy," Obama added.
Tunisia's new constitution is regarded as the most progressive in the Arab world, and the country is looking ahead to elections later this year after a transition period marked by terrorist attacks, political assassinations and widespread social unrest.
Obama noted the "big job ahead of" Jomaa on the economic and political fronts and praised the prime minister for doing "an outstanding job" thus far.
"We are confident that with the prime minister's guidance that, in fact, Tunisia can meet some of its reform goals and lay the foundation for great success in the future," he said.
Jomaa, speaking in French, said through an interpreter: "We need to focus on the future, on creating a new future for our youth."
Before departing for the U.S., Jomaa told The Associated Press in an interview that, with extremism under control and the transition to democracy underway, it is time to focus on Tunisia's economy.
Associated Press writer Bouazza Ben Bouazaa in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.
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