Clinton offers Tunisia support amid small protests

TUNIS Thu Mar 17, 2011 2:51pm EDT

TUNIS (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged on Thursday to support Tunisia as it emerges from authoritarian rule, saying "the revolution is just the beginning" and that economic and political reform must follow.

Wrapping up a visit to Egypt and Tunisia, two Arab nations where mass protests this year toppled long-time authoritarian leaders, Clinton cast the United States as a partner eager to help in the transition, although some Tunisians remain bitter at its long support for former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

"The revolution is just the beginning," Clinton said in a television program taped on Tunisia's Nessa broadcaster.

"The hard work of building a democracy is not as dramatic as the revolution. It takes places in offices and homes and schools and government buildings. It is often frustrating...But that is what now lies ahead," she added.

After meeting Tunisia's new president, prime minister and foreign minister, Clinton said: "The United States stood with Tunisia during your independence and now we will stand with you as you make the transition to democracy and prosperity."

Around 100 people demonstrated outside the Tunisian foreign ministry, which Clinton did not visit, saying they were angry over Washington's alliance with Ben Ali, who was ousted on January 14 by a popular revolt. Some held banners reading "Clinton Out!"

"We made the revolution on our own, without any help or assistance. The Americans backed the dictator for a long time and now they want to reap the rewards of our revolution," said a demonstrator who gave his name only as Abdullah.

The protests that forced Ben Ali from power have sparked uprisings across the Arab world, including in neighboring Libya where rebels are trying to fend off an offensive by veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi.

"TUNISIANS NEED JOBS"

On her final stop in Tunis after visiting Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was toppled on February 11, Clinton said Tunisia needed to focus on creating jobs for the thousands of people whose meager prospects helped fuel its revolution.

"We need a plan for economic development, for jobs. The Tunisian people deserve that," Clinton told reporters, saying the United States would take part in a donors' conference later this year to help the North African nation.

"The revolution created so many hopes and now we have to translate those hopes into results and that comes through economic reform and political reform," she added.

As Washington pushed for the United Nations to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya and possible air strikes to stop Gaddafi, Clinton praised Tunisia's "remarkable humanitarian response" to a refugee crisis on its border.

More than 100,000 people, including many African migrants, have crossed into Tunisia since the uprising against Gaddafi started last month.

"We know you are stretched and you have really stepped up and performed," Clinton said as she toured a Red Crescent training center.

"Yet we also know that Tunisia has its own humanitarian needs right now and we want to be sure that we help you meet both humanitarian needs on the border and humanitarian needs inside Tunisia," she added.

(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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