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Obama boosts support, elevates status for ally Tunisia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday pledged to elevate Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, a gesture that recognizes the country’s democratic progress after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

The upgrade in status, shared by close U.S. allies like Israel and Japan, can help expedite defense shipments. But it is chiefly a sign of the importance Obama has placed on supporting the nascent democracy through turbulence in the region.

After meeting with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in the Oval Office, Obama said the United States will provide short-term aid so Tunisia can complete economic reforms.

“At this critical time in world history, we think it’s very important for us to continue to expand the economic assistance that we’re providing so that ordinary Tunisians can feel the concrete benefits of a change to a more open and competitive economy,” Obama told reporters.

The White House said the United States would offer up to $500 million in loan guarantees to the north African nation if needed for economic reforms.

Since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has worked to hold democratic elections and develop a constitution. But the country is very poor, with unemployment around 15 percent, and tensions are rising.

The government has pledged to boost development and jobs but is also under pressure to cut public spending and subsidies.

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Essebsi told reporters that his country has “a long way ahead of us” to transform its economy and needed U.S. support.

“The democratic process is always vulnerable and threatened by chaos, by parties that do not believe in democracy,” Essebsi said, speaking through a translator.

Essebsi’s visit, rich in symbolism, needs to be followed up with concrete, sustained U.S. financial aid and attention, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official who worked on democracy issues in the Middle East.

“Symbolism is not going to save Tunisia from the fragility of its economy, from the instability that is the Libya civil war next door,” said Cofman Wittes, now with the Brookings Institution.

Islamic State and other militant groups have recruited members in the country.

Islamic militants attacked Tunis’ Bardo museum in March and killed 22 people, most of them tourists.

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Obama said the leaders discussed the need to stabilize neighboring Libya “so that we don’t have a failed state and a power vacuum that ends up infecting the situation in Tunisia as well,” Obama said.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; Editing by Susan Heavey, Grant McCool and David Gregorio