William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday visited Tunisia, the birthplace of the popular protests which have swept through the Arab world, and pledged increased aid to lay the basis for democratic institutions.
Mr Hague, the first senior Western statesman to arrive in the North African state since the overthrow of president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, hailed a "time of great opportunity for the Middle East" and announced £5m from the UK to support "reform" projects across the region. The situation in the country, however, remains volatile and gunshots echoed around the capital, Tunis, forcing people to flee from the streets.
After a period of relative calm, violence has broken out in recent days. Eight people have been reported killed in clashes between protesters and the police. The army, which was seen as neutral during the initial disturbances, is once again appearing on the streets.
Public-sector workers in Tunis have gone on strike demanding the removal of ministers they say are undermining the fledgling democracy. Industrial action, leading to violence, has also taken place in the Gassrine and Gafsa regions in efforts to get the governors there to resign. Meanwhile former members of the security police have been accused of carrying out robberies and kidnappings using weapons seized from government arsenals.
The EU, Tunisia's biggest trading partner and a major donor, has said it was putting together an assistance package to help to repair the fractured economy. Although an increasing number of British tourists had been travelling to Tunisia, the UK does not have particularly strong diplomatic or economic ties with the francophone state.
Mr Hague's visit was a surprise to local officials who had expected the first appearance would be from France. Mr Hague could, however, have been following in the footsteps of David Cameron who, as opposition leader, also paid an unexpected visit to a country in strife – arriving in Georgia in 2008 in the aftermath of the conflict with Russia to the puzzlement of many in the capital, Tbilisi.
Mr Hague will visit five other countries in the region including Jordan, but not Egypt, during his tour. A Foreign Office spokesman maintained: "It is the wrong time to go to Egypt, given the talks between the government and opposition parties and the importance of not interfering. His meeting with King Abdullah [of Jordan] will be to set out the need for urgent progress on the Middle East peace process." Mr Hague, after meeting the Tunisian prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, said: "The courage and dignity and sacrifice of ordinary people in Tunisia in pursuit of universal freedoms we take for granted has been truly inspiring. We are witnessing a moment of opportunity here in Tunisia and in many other countries, an opportunity which should be seized rather than feared."
Nabil al-Fassi, a political analyst in Tunis, said: "The British minister was not someone we thought would be the first one to come here, but any visit by a foreign government, especially from Europe, should be welcome. We have very big problems to cope with. The international focus has been on Egypt but there are worrying tendencies taking place here."
Khalida Ali Tabriki, a housewife shopping in Tunis, said she did not know who William Hague was. But, she added: "If he is bringing any money, that is good. There has been a lot of damage here because of the demonstrations. We need people to stay in work and give us stability."Reuse content