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Clinton urges Tunisians to protect new freedoms

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 25, 2012 2:39 PM
Clinton urges Tunisians to protect new freedoms

By Arshad Mohammed

SIDI BOU SAID, Tunisia (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Tunisians on Saturday to protect their newly won freedoms and called on Islamist and secular parties to work together in the country that inspired the Arab Spring.

Addressing about 200 students, Clinton urged young people to use social media and other technologies that enabled popular revolts last year to hold their new rulers to account.

"After a revolution, history shows it can go one of two ways. It can move in the direction you are now headed, building a strong, democratic country, or it can derail ... into autocracy, into new absolutism," Clinton said in a meeting an Andalusian-style seaside villa.

"The victors of revolutions can become their victims," she added. "You must be the guardians of your democracy."

Clinton spoke during a swing through North Africa that has been dominated by the violence in Syria, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have kept up attacks on civilians and opposition forces seeking to end his family's four-decade rule.

On Friday, she attended a gathering of nations known as the "Friends of Syria" that sought to increase political, economic and moral pressure on Assad to step down.

Russia and China have vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to end the violence and other nations disagree sharply on whether to arm the Syrian opposition to help them fight Assad's forces.

In Tunisia, a popular revolt forced autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on January 14, 2011 and the country has become a model for democratic change in the Middle East, inspiring revolutions that toppled autocratic rulers in Egypt and Libya.

The North African country has since calmly elected its own government, defying predictions it would descend into chaos, while Ben Ali's secret police have been disbanded and the news media enjoy unprecedented freedoms.

ISLAMIST RESURGENCE

For all its progress, however, Tunisia's political scene has quickly grown polarized, with secularist parties and trade unions bitterly opposed to the moderate Islamist Ennahda party which dominates the new government.

"There are those here in Tunisia and elsewhere who question whether Islamist (politics) can really be compatible with democracy," Clinton said.

"Tunisia has the chance to answer that question in the affirmative and to demonstrate there is no contradiction ... and that means not just talking about tolerance and pluralism, but living it."

From Tunisia, Clinton flew on to neighboring Algeria. That country was largely untouched by the Arab Spring uprisings, but its leaders now face pressure to allow more democracy.

Algeria votes on May 10 in a parliamentary election in which

Islamists, boosted by the resurgence of Islamists elsewhere in the region, are mounting a strong challenge. Parts of the secular establishment, especially the powerful security services, are opposed to giving the Islamists any power.

At a meeting with about a dozen civil society activists in the Algerian capital, Clinton said people in countries in the region "need and deserve the opportunity to make decisions on behalf of themselves."

She said little about Algeria's election. A senior U.S. official said she would talk to officials "about the steps they can take now to encourage wider participation in those elections, to encourage those elections to be reflective of the Algerian popular sentiments."

Robert Danin, a former State Department official now at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington, said he saw little chance of the elections leading to meaningful change.

"I remain skeptical of the military handing over real power to the Islamist opposition should it win elections in Algeria," Danin said.

"(While) there will likely be efforts to project a free and fair electoral process, the chances seem limited that this would lead to a real and fundamental relinquishment of power."

(Editing by Christian Lowe and Maria Golovnina)