Foreign secretary begins tour of north Africa and Middle East ‘to show support’ for democratic change
William Hague has arrived in Tunisia as part of a whirlwind tour of north Africa and the Middle East to support “greater political openness”.
During his first stop the foreign secretary will meet key figures in the country’s interim government, including the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, after the toppling of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The interim government has promised to hold fresh elections within six months and Ghannouchi – who served for many years in the ousted president’s regime – has said he will retire from politics once they are complete.
Hague’s itinerary does not include Egypt, where, after two weeks of unrest, protesters are demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down immediately.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “It’s the wrong time to go to Egypt given the talks between the government and opposition parties and the importance of not interfering.”
He said Hague would announce new UK funding to support reform projects across the Middle East and north Africa, in the areas of access to justice, freedom of expression, democratic institutions and civil society.
For security reasons the Foreign Office imposed a media blackout on the trip until Hague’s arrival. But the foreign secretary tweeted about his visit more than six hours before the embargo was to be lifted.
“Heading to Tunisia to meet the new interim government & show UK support for the people of Tunisia & their democratic hopes,” Hague told his 30,055 followers as he set off from the UK last night.
Once there, he tweeted: “Unmistakable desire among young Tunisians to shape their future, choose their own leaders & have economic & political opportunity.”
Despite Hague’s upbeat message, the situation in Tunisia remains unsettled amid renewed violence that government officials blame on officials close to the old administration.
At least five people have been killed in provincial towns since Friday, including two shot dead in the northern city of Kef when police tried to disperse protesters.
Last week in Kasserine, 200 miles south-west of the capital, Tunis, where the unrest began, at least 1,000 people ransacked schools, smashed buildings and carried out armed robberies. Ben Ali’s former RCD party has been blamed for instigating the fresh violence to turn back the revolution.
The coalition government has asked military reservists to report for duty and warned police they would be sacked for absenteeism in a new drive to restore order three weeks after the departure of Ben Ali.
The military has been in the streets helping keep order, filling the vacuum left by a discredited police force hit by desertions and absenteeism.
“The ministry of interior calls on police officers to guarantee the security of the country and to act to help all those who ask their help in case of danger,” said the ministry. “In cases where police leave their workplace to answer urgent calls they must return as soon as the emergency is dealt with. If they do not return they will be considered as having left their job.”
In other moves, Tunisian MPs voted to give the interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, the power to rule by decree, allowing him to bypass parliament. Ghannouchi said the powers were needed to allow the government to respond quickly to the challenges it faced.