Special Briefing with Ambassador Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
SPECIAL BRIEFING VIA TELEPHONE
SEPTEMBER 14, 2022
Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, provides a readout of her recent trip to Tunisia, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Iraq, including meetings and discussions about shared priorities with government officials, civil society members, entrepreneurs and others.
MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Ambassador Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Assistant Secretary Leaf will provide a readout of her recent trip to Tunisia, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Iraq, including meetings and discussions about our shared priorities with government officials, civil society members, entrepreneurs, and others. Assistant Secretary Leaf will also take questions from participating journalists.
I will now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Leaf for her opening remarks. Ambassador Leaf, the floor is yours.
AMBASSADOR LEAF: Thank you, Sam. Good afternoon, everyone. I’m really delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you today. As Sam said, I want to give you a brief overview of my recent trip to the region, which was my first multi-country regional trip since becoming the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East in early June.
My visit between August 29th and September 9th allowed me to reinforce many of the same things that President Biden underscored during his trip this past July to the Middle East – that the administration has an affirmative framework for America’s engagement in the Middle East and North Africa, which includes de-escalating conflicts, enhancing our partnerships for regional security, and promoting regional integration on the way to addressing problems and issues that are global and regional in nature.
The first step – stop on my trip was Tunisia, where I met with Tunisian President Kais Saied and the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and interior, as well as with leading Tunisian experts, civil society, and journalists, to hear a range of views on the serious political and economic challenges facing the country. I reiterated U.S. support for the Tunisian people and our commitment to a long-term partnership. That partnership is strongest when anchored in a shared commitment to democratic principles and human rights. I discussed in Tunis the importance of an inclusive and transparent political reform process that represents diverse Tunisian voices and protects fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression.
As Tunisians grapple with a range of economic shocks, including the food insecurity sparked by Russia’s war in Ukraine, I also stressed the importance of Tunisia moving forward with urgency in its negotiations with the IMF and undertaking meaningful economic reforms critical to arrest the ongoing economic crisis. That package will help put Tunisia on a sounder fiscal footing and address key structural problems bedeviling the economy.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Leaf. Our next question comes from the live queue, and it goes to Hiba Nasr from Asharq News. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: Hiba, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning, Ambassador. Thanks, Sam. I know you told us to stick to what – to the topic, but I have two questions. First on Tunisia, you met with the president and many officials as well. What did you feel? Are you really concerned that this experience – you know that Tunisia is where the Arab Spring start, and now everybody is concerned. What message did you convey there and are you really concerned that given the economic situation, this could – this could be worse or better?
AMBASSADOR LEAF: Thanks very much, Hiba, for those two questions.
As for Tunisia, indeed, the situation – the economic situation is of immense concern for us, and I think it is a concern for many Tunisians, as I heard throughout my stay there. I heard from civil society, from economic experts, from journalists growing anxiety about economic conditions in Tunisia. Now, some of those are simply the shocks that many economies around the world have felt from essentially two sorts of shocks. One, the pandemic – countries around the world are still struggling out of the aftereffects of the pandemic and what it did to economies, especially economies like Tunisia’s, which relied heavily on tourism as one part of their economic engine. But the second one, of course, is the inflationary – or the inflationary shocks, the fuel shocks, and the food insecurity shocks arising out of Russia’s terrible war on Ukraine.
So those are the unlooked-for, unexpected, what we call “black swan” events that have – that have made Tunisia’s economy stagger, and many others in the region and globally. But there are underlying structural issues to Tunisia’s economic stagnation and its looming fiscal crisis, and those, in our view, can and should be addressed through a mechanism like the IMF negotiations. So I was – I was very honest with Tunisia’s leaders in our view that it makes great – it makes great sense to move briskly towards concluding those negotiations, and from the briefings that I’ve had on the sort of general outlines of the package, I think it will help Tunisia quite a bit to deal with issues which have dogged the economy for years.
So yes, we are concerned. There are tools available to address these, and we do think it’s quite important that Tunisia’s leadership move briskly on these – on this issue.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Leaf. Our next question is another question from the live queue and goes to Ahmed Sawan from Masr 360/Al Bawaba. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: And your line is open.
QUESTION: Good morning. (Inaudible.) Thank you, Sam, for giving me this opportunity. My question is about after you discussed with the Tunisian President Kais Saied. So what the United States can do to push the democratic process – the democratic process in Tunisia? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR LEAF: Thanks, Ahmed. Look, the issue of supporting and fostering the growth and the expansion of democratic space in a country like Tunisia is a constant process. It has been since the Tunisian revolution. And the U.S. has over time put a lot of money and training and support behind its programs and activities in Tunisia to support Tunisian voices – civil society, journalists, democracy advocates, and so forth. Those – ultimately, we as a partner government, as a friendly government, as a friend of Tunisia, we’re going to be critical, we’re going to offer criticism where criticism is due. And I was candid in my discussion with President Saied – and he was candid in return – about the current trajectory, political trajectory in Tunisia. It is concerning to us. We want to see Tunisia squarely back on a democratic path with fully functioning democratic institutions, which are so important to the development of democracy in any country. But we want to support Tunisians to make those – to make those demands, and that was very much part and parcel of what I did on my trip.