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Obama, Tunisia’s new president to meet at White House

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is showing support for Tunisia’s transition to democracy by welcoming the North African country’s newly elected president to the White House.

Obama and Beji Caid Essebsi, who was elected in December, were meeting for the first time Thursday.

In a joint opinion piece appearing in Thursday editions of The Washington Post, the two presidents said the meeting will mark Tunisia’s progress and deepen their partnership “to help Tunisia’s new democracy deliver the greater prosperity and security that its citizens deserve.”

“Tunisia shows that democracy is not only possible but also necessary in North Africa and the Middle East,” they wrote.

Tunisians ended decades of dictatorship in 2011, overthrowing their longtime ruler and igniting a series of pro-democracy uprisings that swept through the region in what became known as the Arab Spring, after a poor sidewalk vendor set himself ablaze after police confiscated his merchandise.

Tunisia emerged as the success story of the region, with its citizens casting ballots in multiple free elections and the country adopting a new constitution that upholds religious freedom and guarantees human rights and equality for all people, including women and minorities, Obama and Essebsi said.

The country’s unity government includes secularists and Islamists, “proving that democracy and Islam can thrive together,” they wrote.

Both leaders pledged that Tunisia can count on continued U.S. support as Tunisians endeavor to build the Arab world’s newest democracy.

The U.S. has committed more than $570 million to Tunisia since the revolution to help it pursue political, economic and security reforms, and has proposed $134 million in assistance next year, the presidents noted. They said they would focus Thursday’s meeting on three areas: consolidating Tunisia’s democratic gains; reducing poverty by streamlining bureaucracy, attracting investment and encouraging job growth, with an emphasis on reducing high youth unemployment; and improving cooperation on security and countering terrorism.

The U.S. is working to double its military financing to Tunisia to help its forces keep ahead of evolving threats. It is also working to improve its counterterrorism partnership to confront such common dangers as the Islamic State terrorist group and instability in next-door Libya.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a March terrorist attack at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum that killed 22 people, mostly foreign tourists.

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