Thursday, March 17, 2011

Clinton pushes for jobs -- in Tunisia...

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged Thursday to help Tunisia create jobs and undertake reforms to keep the momentum behind the revolution that overthrew its president two months ago.

The chief US diplomat began talks with interim President Foued Mebazaa, who replaced the ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after saying that an international donors conference would help to focus minds on Tunisia's needs.

New government officials and other Tunisians understand "we need a plan for economic development, for jobs," Clinton told reporters during a tour of Tunisian Red Crescent offices.

"There's going to be a donors conference that will be held in some months. I'm going to be sending a delegation from the United States," said Clinton who arrived Wednesday in Tunis as the most senior US official to visit since Ben Ali's ouster on January 14.

"So we want to know what Tunisia wants. We don't want to come in and say here's what the United States believes... Then we want to work on plans... a plan for health, we want to help do what we can to have a plan for jobs," she said.

"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," Clinton told Tunisian reporters.

Unemployment was a major factor in the political unrest that erupted in Tunisia in December.

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Tunisia's unemployment rate is officially 14 percent, but the percentage of graduates without work is about double that, prompting a warning from the International Monetary Fund.

In her tour of the Red Crescent training center, officials told her of the aid they provided to the tens of thousands of workers who crossed the border from Libya fleeing the fighting sparked by Tunisian-inspired protests.

She praised their work.

Apart from Mebazza, Clinton 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.

But about a hundred Tunisians marched in Tunis under tight security Wednesday 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.

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 dollars for Tunisia to "respond to some of their needs" after Tunisian officials clamored 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 on Wednesday 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 Ben Ali.

Just over a week after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, 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.

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.