U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouk at the Presidential Palace in Carthage, February 25, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged Saturday that Washington would help Tunisia rebuild its economy and cement democracy, as the cradle of the Arab Spring struggles with reforms.
Clinton met Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki as she continued a tour that will also take her to Algeria and Morocco following a global meeting on Syria in Tunis that ratcheted up pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
"I come with a very specific and committed statement of support about the political and economic reforms that are occurring here," Clinton said after the talks with Marzouki.
"The political side of the revolution is going quite well," she said.
"I am a very strong champion for Tunisian democracy and what has been accomplished here.... The challenge is how to ensure the economic development of Tunisia matches the political development."
At the start of the talks she also praised Friday's "Friends of Syria" meeting of more than 60 foreign ministers for bringing new pressure to bear on Assad's regime.
"It was quite a successful conference and a great credit to Tunisia," she said.
Washington is keen to support Tunisia's democratic progress and economic success, hoping it will set an example for other countries in the region that have toppled autocratic rulers or are undergoing popular uprisings.
Tunisia, where mass protests ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali early last year, launched the so-called Arab Spring and inspired similar movements in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.
Authorities in Tunisia, which elected a moderate Islamist government in October, are struggling to deal with unemployment levels of nearly 20 percent and continuing political tensions following the revolution.
Highlighting the tensions, more than 3,000 protesters from unions and left-wing parties rallied in central Tunis on Saturday calling on the government to resign after accusations that ruling party activists had defaced union offices.
The US has vowed to help with Tunisia's transition, committing about $190 million (141 million euros) in total assistance and setting aside $30 million to guarantee Tunisian government loans or bonds.
Tunisia would also be able to benefit from a new Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund announced by President Barack Obama this month that has requested nearly $800 million to boost reforms in Arab countries undergoing pro-democracy revolutions.
"I would do my best to provide the support that is needed in the short term," Clinton said, but warned: "I don't want to over-promise. As you know there is a global economic (crisis)."
Speaking later to a gathering of young Tunisians, Clinton urged them to defend democratic reforms.
"We watched your courage on the frontline of the revolution, enduring tear gas and beatings. It takes a different kind of courage to be a guardian of a new democracy," she said.
She also spoke "directly to the young women" at the gathering, urging them in particular to protect their equal rights.
Clinton later departed for Algeria.
Friday's meeting on Syria issued a declaration calling for an immediate end to violence and for new sanctions on the country, where monitors say more than 7,600 people have been killed since an uprising against Assad's rule erupted last March.
The group called for Syria's government to "immediately cease all violence" to allow humanitarian access and "committed to take steps to apply and enforce restrictions and sanctions on the regime".