Late last month the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee invited his fellow lawmakers to discover a new think tank dedicated to Tunisia, a tiny North African country with an outsize influence in Washington due to its status as the Arab Spring’s sole success story.
In his Jan. 14 Dear Colleague letter, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) described the Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia (CSST) as a US-based initiative “established to strengthen ties between the United States and Tunisia and position Tunisia as a model for other nations that seek to build their own democratic institutions.” He invited members of Congress to a Feb. 4 webinar hosted by the CSST to discuss the “challenges and opportunities” for US-Tunisia relations and the “lessons learned” since a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire a decade ago, sparking anti-government protests across the Middle East.
“Nations with interests that are hostile to Western values such as China and Russia are increasingly wielding their influence within Tunisia and neighboring countries, and economic and social challenges within the country are increasing Tunisia’s fragility and vulnerabilities,” McCaul wrote. “Initiatives such as the Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia can help support and bring greater attention to important efforts in Congress to help achieve a long-term inclusive, prosperous, and secure democracy in Tunisia.”
Unmentioned in the letter was the ambitious Tunisian woman behind the think tank — or the Washington lobbying firm that helped her get it off the ground.
Olfa Hamdi, a Tunisian-born, US-educated, 32-year-old engineer, is the think tank’s president and founder as well as its public face. Corporate records show she registered the CSST in Washington last July and another group called the American Tunisian Partnership Project a month later.
A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Hamdi co-founded a company called Concord Project Technologies in 2017. She was appointed CEO of Tunisia’s troubled national carrier, Tunisair, on Jan. 4, after Elyes Mnakbi was fired last summer amid corruption allegations.
Hamdi’s meteoric rise has fueled a spirited debate inside Tunisia and within the US diaspora about her political connections and qualifications for the high-profile post.
While many have applauded the rise of a young woman from Tunisia’s traditionally marginalized interior, others suggest her business credentials are inflated, pointing to public records that show her company received a $12,500 Coronavirus-related loan last year corresponding to $60,000 in annual payroll expenses for a single employee.
Hamdi did not respond to a request for comment sent to the CSST’s inbox.
She announced the think tank’s launch in a Jan. 28 press release after her Tunisair appointment, suggesting she intends to keep it going despite her new position.
“As we reflect on the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia,” she said, “the launch of the Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia and its critically important agenda couldn’t be better timed.”
“Tunisia remains the sole democracy in the Arab world and a key ally of the United States,” Hamdi continued. “This initiative provides a major opportunity to secure lasting stability and prosperity in a nation that shares modern values, including respect for human rights, support for women empowerment, and military subservience to civilian authority. “
But CSST’s connection to a Washington lobbying firm with a strong focus on the energy sector has raised its own set of questions about the think tank’s ultimate goal and beneficiaries.
While its website says it was founded by Hamdi to “help strengthen the American-Tunisian relationship and ensure a bright future for her native Tunisia,” the think tank is housed in the offices of Cornerstone Government Affairs, a lobbying firm with a strong presence in Texas. The firm lobbies for several domestic energy clients as well as for Moroccan phosphate mining giant OCP.
Meanwhile four of the five US experts listed as providing the think tank with support on communications and policy are Cornerstone employees:
- Jack Belcher, a principal at the firm’s office in Houston who served as staff director of the US House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources;
- Brent Greenfield, a vice-president and counsel at the firm with experience in the Middle East and North Africa, also based in Houston;
- Paul Looney, another principal at the Houston office who served as a legislative aide to Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) in the 1990s; and
- Morgan McCord, a senior associate in the firm’s Washington office.
One member of the Tunisian-American community told Foreign Lobby Report that Hamdi appeared to be “a gateway for a group of lobbyists who want to see her in a higher position so they can get some contracts.”
The think tank’s emergence is being watched particularly closely because the Tunisian government does not retain any lobbyists of its own.
BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) stopped working for Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party on Dec. 31, according to a new lobbying filing. BCW — formerly Burson-Marsteller — had helped the party with “media and stakeholder outreach” since 2014, helping to assuage US concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired party and its role in Tunisian politics. But BCW’s representation also benefited the Tunisian government more broadly by encouraging US support for the fledgling democracy.
Rounding out the think tank’s team of experts is Mitchell Weisberg, a professor of management at Northeastern University in Boston whom Hamdi named to her board of advisers at Tunisair in one of her first acts.
Greenfield told Foreign Lobby Report that Hamdi “personally” retained Cornerstone in April 2020 to provide “organizational support” for CSST.
He also acknowledged that the firm “facilitated communications between CSST leadership and Rep. McCaul prior to his statement.” Federal Election Commission records show Looney contributed $2,500 to McCaul’s re-election campaign on Oct. 2, 2020.
In the filing, Looney listed his employer as Cornerstone Energy Solutions, the energy business line Cornerstone announced in January 2019.
Greenfield insisted that the nature of its work did not require registering as a foreign agent with the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
“That support, which includes policy and communications counsel, research, and strategic outreach to thought leaders, does not require FARA registration,” he said.
He went on to say that there was “no connection” between Cornerstone and Tunisair and that Hamdi’s appointment to lead the company “has not impacted our work on behalf of CSST.”
Cornerstone’s help extends to writing the think tank’s business-focused materials.
Belcher penned a Sept. 2020 piece urging US investment in Tunisia’s “largely unexplored” fossil energy resources. And Greenfield wrote an article in October calling on the US to increase aid to the country and make it a linchpin of the Global Fragility Act, which Congress passed in 2019 to establish an interagency Global Fragility Initiative to stabilize conflict-affected areas.
“Given Tunisia’s history and geostrategic importance to the United States and the Western world — and the high cost of failing to act — Tunisia must be a centerpiece of America’s global fragility strategy and efforts to prevent more extremism in the broader region,” Greenfield wrote. “The stakes are enormously high for neighboring Europe, the Middle East-North Africa region, and global stability, and the time to act is now.”