President Barack Obama pledged U.S. support for Tunisia's political and economic development, as he welcomed the North African nation's prime minister to the White House for a meeting steeped in symbolism.
Tunisia sparked the wider democracy movement now known as the Arab Spring when citizens took to the streets in January to protest their authoritarian government. Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country to successfully overthrow its longtime leader, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and will also be the first to hold free elections to emerge from the movement, with voters set to cast ballots on Oct. 23.
Because of those milestones, Obama said he wanted Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi to be the first of the new generation of Arab Spring leaders to be recognized with an Oval Office meeting.
"Tunisia has been an inspiration to all of us who believe that each individual man and woman has certain inalienable rights, and those rights must be recognized by a government that is responsive and democratic," Obama said.
The president said the U.S. would play a strong, supportive role as Tunisia transitions toward full democracy. Following the meeting, the White House announced plans to work with Congress to provide up to $30 million in loan guarantees to Tunisia and to launch a $20 million Tunisia Enterprise Fund to support private sector growth.
In addition, the Peace Corps will return to Tunisia starting early next year, with volunteers focusing on English language training and youth development programs.
The White House says the U.S. has already committed more than $55 million in non-security assistance to Tunisia since January.
Essebsi thanked the U.S. for its early support of Tunisia's democracy movement, and said he hoped the transformation taking place in his country would be replicated elsewhere in the region.
"Up until now, the Arab Spring is only really the Tunisian Spring. So what I do hope is that this Arab Spring will not limit itself exclusively to Tunisia and that it will spread throughout the region," Essebsi said through a translator.
The prime minister's comments underscored a concern that while democracy protests have taken hold throughout the Arab world, their effectiveness has been uneven.
The protests in Tunisia quickly spread to nearby Egypt, where massive public protests forced the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Elections there are scheduled for November.
In Libya, rebels led the charge to end the four decade-long regime of Moammar Gadhafi. But it took a months-long NATO bombing campaign, which continues today, to clear the way for the opposition to take control of most of the country, including the capital of Tripoli. The U.S. and the United Nations now recognize the opposition-led National Transitional Council as Libya's legitimate government, though Gadhafi remains at large.
Elsewhere, protest movements have been stymied, often by harsh crackdowns by government-backed forces.
The violence has been most notable in Syria, where the United Nations human rights office says at least 2,900 people, including security forces, have been killed since mid-March. While the Obama administration has levied sanctions on the government and called for President Bashar Assad to step down, there has been no sign that Syrian leader plans to leave power.
And in Yemen, the U.S. was apparently blindsided by last month's surprise return of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the embattled leader who spent three months abroad for medical care following an assassination attempt. The Obama administration had demanded that Saleh immediately transfer authority and call for new elections later this year in hopes of avoiding a civil war.
The U.S. role in supporting the pro-democracy movement has also been overshadowed in recent weeks by the Obama administration's opposition to a statehood push by the Palestinians. The U.S. threat to veto such a resolution at the United Nations Security Council has threatened to hurt America's image in the Middle East, giving credence to the notion that the U.S. puts its relationship with Israel above other countries.
The White House says the U.S. will be closely watching how Tunisia's upcoming elections unfold. One administration official said Friday that the White House sees Tunisia as a bellwether for the region, and a successful election there could reverberate throughout the Arab world.
The official said the U.S. views roughly 10 of the more than 100 political parties in Tunisia to be series contenders in the election, and expects the well-organized, moderate Islamist Ennahda Party to claim a significant portion of the vote. Polling has also shown the center left Progressive Democratic Party garnering solid support.
The official spokes on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal administration thinking.
Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.