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Secretary Kerry visits Tunisia

Alex Finkelstein

Secretary of State John Kerry visited Tunisia on Tuesday, voicing support for the country’s newly approved constitution and continued transition to democratic rule. His trip marked the first visit by a high-ranking U.S. official since 2012, even though the U.S. has provided $400 million in aid over the past three years. Kerry met with President Moncef Marzouki and caretaker Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa in Tunis.

Following protests and the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, Tunisia has followed a more peaceful path to democratic rule than neighboring Egypt and Libya. The Islamist Ennahda party won a plurality in the first elected government after the revolution, but was unable to maintain peace amid radical Salafist attacks and secular protests. Tunisians also elected a Constituent Assembly in 2011 to draft a new constitution. Following public pressure, in October 2013, Ennahda ceded power to a temporary technocratic government.

Secretary of State John Kerry holds a press conference after his meeting Tuesday with the Tunisian Prime Minister in Tunis. (Photo: AFP)

Shortly after forming the caretaker government, last month, the Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution backed by wide consensus. The document is the culmination of prolonged negotiation between secular and Islamist elements but it enshrines equal rights for women and gender parity in the legislative assembly with no references to Islamic law. However, apostasy, or Muslims renouncing the Muslim faith, remains banned and capital punishment is still legal.

International leaders praised the new constitution as being a model for the region. During his visit, Secretary Kerry noted that the “ratification of a new democratic constitution and the installation of an independent government” as an “historic milestone,” ensuring the voices of all Tunisians are heard.

Even as Tunisia’s political transition proceeds more smoothly than those of other Arab countries, the government still faces challenges. A Salafist weapons smuggler assassinated a liberal opposition leader in last July and Islamists affiliated with al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb use the poorly secured border with Libya to smuggle weapons. Furthermore, budget and economic issues, especially IMF prescribed austerity measures and high unemployment, continue to cause tensions.