Tunisia began "a good kind of contagion," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday, citing the nation where weeks of Arab uprising began as a model of peaceful political change.
Clinton was the highest-ranking Obama administration official to visit Tunisia and Egypt since popular uprisings there forced out longtime leaders in January and February. Her Mideast trip was overshadowed by the violent flip side of changes sweeping the Arab world, as a crackdown intensified in U.S.-allied Bahrain and rebels fell back in their attempt to unseat Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Clinton pledged U.S. support as the two countries embark on the difficult transition to democracy, including elections in the summer. Washington is offering aid packages that include investment credits, loan guarantees, insurance as well as public private partnerships in the fields of education, technology and science.
In a Tunis town hall meeting at the end of her trip Thursday, Clinton praised the popular uprising that ousted longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January, after a month of street protests. The revolt quickly spread across the Arab world, toppling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and challenging the rule of leaders elsewhere in the region.
"You have seen the contagion. It's the Tunisian contagion. It is a good kind of contagion," Clinton told an audience of several dozen students, business people and civic leaders.
"I had no idea that Tunisia would alight this awakening," she said. "The revolution here has begun the democratic transformation (around the region) and it is my great hope that Tunisia will be the model democracy for the 21st century."
The popular protests initially caught the U.S. in a bind since they targeted many traditional U.S. allies in the region, including Mubarak. However, the Obama administration quickly came to support the pro-democracy rallies and this week warned the ruler of Bahrain, a key ally, against a violent crackdown.
Still, Washington's past support for autocratic rulers has hurt U.S. standing in the region, and many view the U.S. with suspicion. Clinton was asked several times Thursday why the United States had stood by repressive regimes for so long.
Her answer was always the same: The U.S. has to deal with governments it doesn't agree with all the time.
Protesters rallied outside the Tunisian foreign ministry, chanting "Clinton, get out."
Others, some bearing placards that read "We don't want another Iraq," demonstrated in central Avenue Bourguiba.
"The Americans want to put up governments that serve them by using Tunisia's revolution and cutting and pasting it in other Arab countries," said protester Fakhreddine Bouaziz, a 35-year-old shopkeeper.
Clinton initially was to meet at the ministry with Tunisian Foreign Minister Mouldi Kefi, but the meeting and a news conference were moved to the prime minister's office, apparently because of security concerns.
At the foreign ministry, several Tunisian journalists got into shouting matches with U.S. security because dogs were used to sniff bags, deemed insulting by some members of the local press corps. Journalists said they were also upset because they were made to wait for Clinton for more than two hours without being told why.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Bouazza Ben Bouazza contributed to this report.