Tunisia’s commitment to democracy provides hope for a region awash in tumult, but the North African nation needs U.S. aid to move forward, its top government official says.

And the Tunisian leader has a backer in Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Warning that “no country can address challenges without support from the international community,” Tunisian Chief of Government Youssef Chahed used a speech Tuesday at The Heritage Foundation to encourage the United States to further both its own security and the flourishing of the Middle East by continuing to provide “valuable assistance” to Tunisia.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget would slash aid to Tunisia from $177 million a year to $54 million a year, a move that McCain, who spoke after Chahed, indicted as “misguided and dangerous.”

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The partnership between Tunisia and the United States stretches back 220 years to 1797, when President John Adams and the Tunisian king signed a treaty of peace and friendship.

After Tunisia achieved independence from France in 1956, the U.S. was one of the first countries to recognize its sovereignty.

The “friendship of mutual respect and shared values,” as Chahed described it, involves dedication to similar principles. Chahed, who holds a doctorate in agricultural economics, emphasized Tunisia’s historical dedication to tolerance.

Although a Muslim nation, Chahed said, Tunisia is a longtime home to Jewish communities and was the birthplace of St. Augustine.

Chahed, a veteran government minister appointed to the top post last August by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, functions as a prime minister and sets the nation’s general policy.

He characterized the 2011 Tunisian revolution as a “peaceful and civilized” continuation of ancestral devotion to  pluralistic society.

The revolt sparked pro-democracy movements around the Middle East in what came to be called the Arab Spring. While countries such as Egypt and Syria returned to authoritarianism and instability, Tunisia continues to embrace the liberal order, Chahed said.

The “full-fledged democracy” now marking Tunisia is rooted, Chahed said, in freedom of speech, freedom of belief, and freedom of entrepreneurship. He cited civil institutions as key to fostering dialogue and stabilizing the country.

Yet Tunisia’s liberal order faces challenges from economic turmoil, corruption, and terrorism. As chief of government, Chahed has implemented anti-corruption measures, which he called among the region’s most comprehensive and designed to advance economic growth and employ recent graduates.

Heritage’s 2017 Index of Economic Freedom, however, ranks Tunisia’s economy as  “mostly unfree,” naming political instability, over-regulation, and rigid private sector markets as constraints to fully achieving the economic flourishing that democratic reforms made possible.

By Elle Rogers

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