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Kerry in Tunisia to laud nation's reforms

TUNIS, Tunisia--U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Tunisia to offer continued American assistance to the North African nation where uprisings that toppled authoritarian leaders around the Arab world first ignited in 2011.

In meetings Tuesday with Tunisian authorities, U.S. officials said Kerry would urge a cementing of democratic reforms enshrined in a new constitution that was formally adopted earlier this month after the formation of an interim government in January. Kerry will laud Tunisia's progress and offer technical assistance for organizing presidential and parliamentary elections that are due to be held by the end of the year, the officials said.

Kerry made the unannounced stop in Tunis as he flew from Abu Dhabi to Paris for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday.

The U.S. is keen to encourage the democratic transition in Tunisia, which ousted its longtime dictator in January 2011, sparking revolts around the Middle East and North Africa that toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

One official with Kerry said the U.S. hoped Tunisia could serve as a model for other transitioning countries in the region.

“I've really been looking forward to coming. We are very impressed by the steps that you have been taking, by the rational thoughtful approach to the transition,” Kerry told Tunisian President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki.

Tunisia's new charter — agreed upon after a laborious and often turbulent two-year drafting process — has been hailed as one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world. A compromise between liberals and Islamists, it guarantees freedom of religion and women's rights.

Although the process was messy and marked by high unemployment, protests, terrorist attacks, political assassinations and numerous walkouts by members of the drafting committee, Tunisia is cautiously seen as a success story, especially compared to Egypt.

During the period that the Tunisians drafted their constitution, Egypt wrote two constitutions and went through a military coup against an elected government. Egypt's charters were quickly drafted by appointed committees with little public debate or input. In Tunisia, an elected assembly of Tunisian Islamists, leftists and liberals worked together on the text.

Tunisia's constitution aims to make the country of 11 million people a democracy, with a civil state whose laws are not based on Islamic law, unlike many other Arab constitutions. An entire chapter of the document, some 28 articles, is dedicated to protecting citizens' rights, including protection from torture, the right to due process and freedom of worship. It also guarantees equality between men and women before the law.

After overthrowing their dictator in 2011, Tunisians brought a moderate Islamist party into power allied with two other secular parties. But the coalition struggled in the face of continuing social unrest, high unemployment, the rise of a radical Islamist movement with ties to al-Qaida and the assassination of two left-wing politicians.

The deadlock over the constitution exacerbated the economic crisis in Tunisia, and the International Monetary Fund withheld a half-billion-dollar loan.

Inflation soared, the budget deficit swelled, and demonstrations over high food prices and lack of jobs spread.

However, with the passage of the constitution, Tunisia's image abroad has brightened, and the IMF released its planned loan. The slide of the Tunisian dinar has halted, and the stock market has perked up.

Officials with Kerry said that while they were very pleased with Tunisia's recent positive steps, they remain concerned about security challenges, including the existence of the al-Qaida-linked Ansar al-Sharia terrorist group and lingering issues over prosecuting those responsible for the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy and the American School in Tunis.

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