TUNIS - US Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced trip to Tunisia on Tuesday to back the transition to democracy in the North African country that spawned the Arab Spring.
TUNIS – US Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced trip to Tunisia on Tuesday to back the transition to democracy in the North African country that spawned the Arab Spring.
His visit came amid troubled relations between the United States and longtime ally Egypt over the military overthrow of the government elected in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings that shook the Arab world.
Tunisia’s agreement earlier this year on a consensus government and a new constitution three years after the ouster of veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been hailed as a model by Western governments uncomfortable about events in Egypt.
Kerry met President Moncef Marzouki and caretaker Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, who formed a cabinet of independents in January after a months-long political crisis ignited by the killing of two secular politicians.
“We are very impressed by the steps that you have been taking, by the rational, thoughtful approach to the transition,” Kerry told Marzouki.
He went on to congratulate Tunisia on its adoption of a new constitution last month that has been widely hailed as the most progressive in the region, calling it a “big step,” and said he looked forward to elections planned for later this year.
Kerry’s discussions with Tunisian leaders were to focus on “the progress made in Tunisia’s democratic transition,” and to show the “continued US support for the Tunisian people and government,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier.
The top US diplomat often refers in his speeches to the Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself alight in protest at his country’s lack of democracy.
The shocking self-immolation sparked the January 2011 revolution that toppled Ben Ali’s autocratic regime and ignited the Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the region.
“What is unique, or at least striking in particular about Tunisia, is the willingness of opposing sides to reach out and show some inclusiveness and cooperation,” a senior US administration official said, asking not to be named.
“What’s positive and even inspiring in Tunisia is the demonstrated willingness not to take power and hold on to it,” he added, pointing to the new constitution adopted last month and the swearing-in of the new independent government.
Progress despite violence
Tunisia’s new leaders have grappled with a surge in Islamist unrest, which saw the assassination last year of two opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and leftist MP Mohamed Brahmi.
The killings sparked a political crisis between the governing Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist movement, and its secular opponents, from which the country is only now emerging with the adoption in January of the new constitution.
Ennahda, which won Tunisia’s first free elections in October 2011, stepped down in January under a hard-won agreement to end the crisis, allowing Jomaa to form a caretaker cabinet tasked with leading the country to fresh elections.
But despite the political progress, Islamist violence remains a threat, while the new leaders must also deal with persistent social unrest.
More than 1,000 protesters gathered on Monday in the town of Jendouba to condemn the weekend killings of four people by suspected jihadists.
State Department officials said Washington wanted to work with the Tunisian authorities to bring to justice those behind a 2012 attack on its embassy and the American school in Tunis.
“There have been some steps taken in that regard, but in our view there’s more that could be done both in terms of arrests and prosecutions”, a senior State Department official said, asking not to be named.
After his Tunisia stopover, Kerry will fly to Paris for a meeting on Wednesday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as the US seeks to hammer out an agreed framework to guide negotiations with Israel towards a peace treaty.
Washington has given some $400 million in assistance to Tunis since 2011, and Kerry was also to upgrade ties during his visit, announcing they would launch a strategic dialogue, a high-level forum for regular talks.
Washington’s relations with Tunis contrast with those with fellow Arab Spring nation Cairo where army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tilted squarely towards Moscow in a visit last week.