US Secretary of State John Kerry exits his plane after arriving at Halim Air Field in Jakarta on February 15, 2014
US Secretary of State John Kerry exits his plane after arriving at Halim Air Field in Jakarta on February 15, 2014 © Evan Vucci - POOL/AFP/File
US Secretary of State John Kerry exits his plane after arriving at Halim Air Field in Jakarta on February 15, 2014
Last updated: February 18, 2014

Kerry arrives in Tunis on surprise visit

US Secretary of State John Kerry praised Tunisia's fledgling democracy on Tuesday and vowed America's help in fighting Islamist militants in the North African country that spawned the Arab Spring.

Flying in unannounced in a strong show of support for the new caretaker government of technocrats, the top US diplomat pledged Washington would stand by them as they struggle to ward off jihadist militants and follow a path of democratic reform and elections later this year.

Tunisia has put in place a consensus government and a new constitution -- three years after the 2011 ouster of veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali -- which Kerry said could become a model for other countries emerging from long-term autocratic rule.

"Getting to this moment has not been easy," Kerry said at a press conference at the end of his four-hour visit during which he met President Moncef Marzouki and caretaker Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa for the first time.

"The fact is that the road to a full democracy is long and difficult, and it is a road that in many ways never really ends," Kerry said.

But he praised the Tunisian people for the "courageous path" they were on, and pledged "the United States will continue to stand beside Tunisia throughout its democratic transition".

Washington has been deeply alarmed that in other countries such as Egypt democratic aspirations have failed to be fully implemented yet.

And while Kerry refused to say in public what Egypt's military-appointed leaders could learn from Tunisia, he did say the United States would be continuing those conversations in private in the "coming days and weeks".

The US has also been concerned about the growth of Islamic militant groups in the vacuum left in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Kerry revealed that Tunisian leaders had pressed the need for greater security in their talks, presenting a list which he would take back to Washington to study.

"No democracy can survive or prosper in the absence of security," he said, adding the US would look at initiatives in the hope "Tunisians will be better prepared to address the violence and terrorism that threatens everybody in many parts of the world."

The US top diplomat often refers in his speeches to the Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself alight in protest at his country's lack of democracy.

The shocking self-immolation sparked the January 2011 revolution that toppled Ben Ali and ignited the Arab Spring uprisings across the region, which Kerry referred to as a "tectonic shift."

When, after Ben Ali's ouster, Tunisians realised that "they were struggling sort of in gridlock... they looked over and they saw this abyss on the other side, they came together and compromised and came up with this constitution, a terrific constitution that respects people’s rights, respects the rights of minorities, of women," Kerry told US embassy staff.

Marzouki and Jomaa formed a cabinet of independents in January after a months-long political crisis ignited by the assassination of two secular politicians.

That sparked a fallout between the governing Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist movement, and its secular opponents, from which the country is only now emerging with the adoption of the new constitution in January.

Despite the political progress, Islamist violence remains a threat, and the new leaders also have to contend with persistent social unrest.

Kerry said he believed Tunisian leaders were up to the challenge, hailing the security forces' success in arresting militants and breaking up Islamist cells in recent weeks, in operations he described as "well planned and executed".

State Department officials have also said Washington wants to work with the authorities to bring to justice those behind a 2012 attack on its embassy and the American school in Tunis, after suspended jail terms were given to 20 suspects last year.

Washington has given some $400 million (292 million euros) in assistance to Tunis since 2011.

Kerry left Tunis for Paris for a meeting Wednesday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as the US seeks to hammer out an agreed framework to guide negotiations with Israel towards a peace treaty.

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