Tunisia Press Conference Opening Remarks: Statement Prepared for Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to meet with President Caid Essebi and Prime Minister Essid.          

The message I delivered to them was simple: the United States supports Tunisia’s transition to democracy, and is committed to strengthening our partnership with the country’s new government. 

Since the days of the revolution, Tunisia has undergone a historic transition from dictatorship to democracy. 

  • Your leaders ratified a progressive constitution.
  • Your people voted in free and fair elections.
  • You inaugurated your first democratically-elected president.
  • Your legislators formed a government based on consensus.

This political progress has been rapid and remarkable, inspiring and necessary. A stable, functioning democracy is a fundamental backbone of a strong economy and a healthy society.

However, we all know that a political shift is not enough.

I heard the same sentiment from the President and Prime Minister.  Clearly your government’s view is that economic reform is necessary to fulfill the ambitions of the Tunisian people.  I certainly agree with that.  We discussed with your leadership a number of specific reforms that are necessary for your growth.

First, Tunisia must streamline, simplify, and clarify its complicated investment code – to send a signal to local and global investors that Tunisia is open for business.

Second, Tunisia needs comprehensive, forward-looking banking reform that recapitalizes publicly-owned banks, supports the creation of new businesses, and includes a bankruptcy law to protect risk-takers and to lay the cornerstones for an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Third, Tunisia needs a transparent, reliable, and modern tax and customs structure that incorporates the informal economy into the broader market.

Finally, Tunisia should enact a strong public-private partnership law that attracts private capital for infrastructure projects and increases transparency and predictability for domestic and foreign firms who want to invest in the country’s future. 

These would be significant steps forward in helping Tunisia’s economy catch up with its politics.   

The United States has been by Tunisia’s side for years. And as Tunisia’s leaders work to spur to more job creation and economic growth, the Obama Administration is announcing a series of new programs to deepen the partnership between our nations.         

The Department of Commerce is launching a public-private partnership program called the Regional Investments to Support Entrepreneurship – or RISE.  Through this initiative, we will work with private companies, incubators, and non-profit groups to promote trade and investment between our countries, increase market access, and improve commercial rule of law.

Our department will post a new employee here in Tunis to coordinate with our private sector partners who will: 

  • Increase training, mentoring, and access to finance for entrepreneurs;
  • Support the development of incubators and accelerators for Tunisian entrepreneurs; and
  • Encourage economic reforms that improve the commercial environment.

In addition, the Commerce Department’s Commercial Law Development Program will host a series of events to expand training and technical assistance for Tunisian businesses.

The State Department is organizing a pitch competition, where social investors will hear from four Tunisian groups and vote on their favorite pitch.  The winning organization will receive an infusion of capital – funds contributed to an investment pool by event participants.

Next, through the Business Reform and Competitiveness Project, USAID will provide more direct assistance to Tunisian companies and increase job matching services, with a commitment to create 2,500 jobs in Tunisia over the next year.

Finally, this afternoon, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will announce a $37.5 million lending facility for small and medium-sized enterprises.  This will focus on the franchising sector, in collaboration with three Tunisian banks.

I hope my message is heard loud and clear: President Obama and the United States will be Tunisia’s partners as this nation works to transform its economy and meet the aspirations of all Tunisian citizens.

We believe that if Tunisia’s government undertakes tough, necessary reforms now, this country will be a model for peace, prosperity, and political stability not only for the Middle East and North Africa, but for the entire world.         

Now, I am happy to take some questions.

Video of the press conference: