North Africa: United States Will Back Arab Democracy On Multiple Fronts

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Washington — The United States will work with elected leaders in emerging Arab democracies regardless of their political origins provided they pursue inclusive, pluralistic policies, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns says.

"When it comes to building sustainable democracies, the most consequential distinction is not between Islamists and secularists, but between those who embrace a rights-respecting pluralistic approach and those who seek to impose their own will," Burns said in speech to the Forum for the Future in Tunis, Tunisia, December 13.

The deputy secretary said the United States supports democratic transitions and political reform not only out of idealism but also out of strategic necessity. "Representative government, open economies, rights and protections and vibrant civil society are essential building blocks of successful societies," he said.

The Forum for the Future is an annual gathering of the foreign ministers from the G8 and Middle Eastern and North African countries along with representatives from civil society and private sector groups.

The 2012 forum, co-hosted by Tunisia and the United States December 12 and 13, focused on three themes: women's empowerment, economic governance and entrepreneurship, and freedom of expression and association.

Commenting on the turmoil in Egypt, Burns said Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, as his country's first democratically elected leader, "has a particular responsibility to work to build greater consensus on such important issues as the constitution.

"The future of Egyptian democracy depends not on the ability of one side to prevail over another, but on the commitment of all to engage in an inclusive process to negotiate their differences -- one that may not resolve every disagreement," he said.

The deputy secretary said the Tunisian revolution remains full of promise even as it faces challenges.

"Strikes, riots, and the same economic grind that led to a street vendor's desperate act all speak to the work ahead. But America still believes Tunisia can and must be a model for the rest of the region. And we will stand with Tunisians as they deal with the interlocking challenges of transforming its political system, protecting its people and developing its economy," Burns said.

Economic opportunity is an important ingredient to stabilizing the budding democracies in the region, Burns said. To that end, the United States provided $549 million in 2012 to support economic governance and entrepreneurship. Burns proposed the creation of the Middle East/North Africa Partnership for Democracy and Development and said the United States is prepared to fund the startup costs for that partnership. He also announced a special program to help Arab women succeed in business -- the Arab Women's Entrepreneurship Alliance.

"Conventional assistance, no matter how generous, will not be enough," he said. He called for more creative and ambitious thinking to open up trade and investment across the region and "ensure the Arab awakening is also an economic awakening."

To facilitate peaceful dissent, another pillar of democracy, Burns said police need training to help them respect peaceful protests. "The inescapable lesson of the past two years is that security requires more than military might and must be pursued without committing human rights violations that create new grievances," Burns said.

In the coming year, Burns said, the United States will launch new programs to support journalists and civil society groups.

The Journalist Response Fund will provide training to at-risk journalists, bloggers, and citizen journalists and offer assistance to journalists facing difficulties or repression. The Freedom of Association Index, comparable to the World Bank's ease of doing business report, will measure and track the ease of forming and operating civil society groups.

"We support the development of civil society, media, and political parties, with an emphasis on youth, women, and marginalized groups," he said.

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