Clinton in Tunisia to back transition

2011-03-17 07:25

Tunis – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Tunisia yesterday to throw US support behind the country’s transition to democracy, two months after the overthrow of its president.

Clinton, the most senior US official to visit Tunisia since mass protests erupted here in December driving president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power, will meet interim President Foued Mebazaa today.

She will also hold talks with Foreign Minister Mouldi Kefi and interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi.

And her visit will take in meetings with young people who took part in the mass protests; and relief officials who have helped the more than 100 000 foreign workers and others who have fled fighting in neighbouring Libya.

But about a hundred Tunisians marched in Tunis under tight security yesterday to protest Clinton’s visit.

Demonstrators chanted: “No to normalisation, Tunisia is free and not for sale” or “Tunisia is an Arab country, neither imperialist nor Zionist”.

It was the second demonstration in two days in the capital against her visit, after a similar number protested on Tuesday.

And in Egypt yesterday, she was snubbed by one of the main youth groups that spearheaded the uprising there.

Clinton made no statements to reporters on the flight from Cairo to Tunis.

When she announced her plans to visit Egypt and Tunisia last week, she said she would convey the US intention to be “a partner in the important work that lies ahead as they embark on a transition to a genuine democracy”.

Amid warnings about Iran’s bid for influence in the Middle East, she told US lawmakers at the time that “we have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see”.

Clinton said she would also push for $20 million for Tunisia to “respond to some of their needs” after Tunisian officials clamoured for US help, but hinted at more aid.

“We need to have a very big commitment to Tunisia, that we can be ready to help them economically as well as with their democratic transformation,” said the secretary.

Standard & Poor’s yesterday trimmed its long-term credit rating of Tunisia by one notch to BBB-, but said it viewed the political outlook as now stable following the overthrow of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Just over a week after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, Washington dispatched Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, to Tunis.

Then William Burns, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, visited Tunis last month.

The popular uprising against Ben Ali, who ruled with an iron fist for 23 years, began after a 26-year-old fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, died after setting fire to himself to protest police abuses.

It sparked similar protests in Egypt, where president Hosni Mubarak was toppled on February 11, as well as in other countries across the region such as Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and Libya.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, however, has launched a massive crackdown against the protests in his country, provoking a rebellion that his security forces seem in turn determined to crush.

Tunis is the last stop of a three-capital tour that also took Clinton to Paris, where she discussed events in Libya, before her visit to Egypt.

In Cairo earlier yesterday, Clinton took what she called a “thrilling” tour of Tahrir Square, which was the centre of the protests that ousted Mubarak.

But a group that played a key role in the uprising, The Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, refused an invitation to meet her.

In a statement posted on its website, the group denounced Washinton’s “weak position at the start of the revolution” and its “close relationship” with the ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

It also expressed anger at “the help and support offered by the American administration to many of the oppressive and undemocratic regimes in the region.”

As Clinton visited Egypt, a deadly police raid on a protest camp in US Gulf ally Bahrain left three demonstrators dead and dozens more wounded, highlighting the continuing volatility in the region.

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