The top U.S. diplomat for the Arab world gave Washington’s firm endorsement of the uprising that ousted Tunisia’s longtime ruler, even as a crisis over the North African country’s transitional government continued to simmer.
Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, also said Washington had offered the fragile new government “whatever support is appropriate and requested” in conducting a nationwide election.
The transitional government has promised to conduct balloting in six months. But for now, it faces a mounting movement opposed to the inclusion in the Cabinet of former figures in the deposed regime of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who fled the country for Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.
Tunisia is starkly divided over the inclusion of key members of Ben Ali’s former ruling party in crucial positions. Activists backed by powerful labor unions have set up a rowdy encampment outside the prime minister’s office and demanded the removal of those officials from the government.
“Somebody is stealing our revolution,” said Salman Mastori, among the increasingly militant activists mounting a challenge to the government of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who held the same post in the ousted regime. “Ben Ali said we are terrorists. But we are revolutionaries.”
Feltman, who served as a diplomat here from 1998 to 2000, said the political rift “symbolizes a new spirit” in the country.
“What’s going to give any government real credibility … are elections,” Feltman told reporters at the U.S. Embassy. “To get to credible elections after having a system that so restricted the role of civil society and political parties … is going to take some time and effort.”
The diplomat said he had told Tunisian ministers that Washington supports efforts to free political prisoners, end media restrictions and lift bans on political parties before the vote.
“We have long called for greater political space in Tunisia,” he said.
Feltman flatly rejected reports, circulating in Tunisian and European news media, that the Obama administration had pushed Ben Ali out of office.
“The U.S. was not involved in the ouster of Ben Ali,” he said.