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Feltman: ‘What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian’

A top State Department official in Tunis pledged full American support for the Tunisian drive to hold free elections on Wednesday, but also sought to distance the U.S. position on Tunisia from other mass protests in the region, such as the ongoing unrest in Egypt. "What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That ...

A top State Department official in Tunis pledged full American support for the Tunisian drive to hold free elections on Wednesday, but also sought to distance the U.S. position on Tunisia from other mass protests in the region, such as the ongoing unrest in Egypt.

"What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said at a press conference.

He called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and pledged both American and international support to set them up.

"The United States stands with the people of Tunisia. This is an exciting and unprecedented moment in Tunisia’s history with great challenges but also great opportunities for the Tunisian people to chart their own course," he said.

Feltman allowed that there are some fundamental similarities with regard to human rights.

"The challenges that are faced here are in some cases shared. And we think governments everywhere should be finding ways to permit peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the media in order to give people a say in how they are governed and to give them a stake in the future," he said.

Feltman’s remarks echo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s latest statement, which also calls on the Egyptian government to stop harassing protesters, but doesn’t call on the Egyptian government to let them participate in a real election process.

"It is important that the government listens to the concerns of those demonstrating and respects rights of freedom of assembly and expression," she said. "Openness, transparency and political freedom are important tenets of stability. We urge the government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward."

The Obama administration’s support for Tunisians’ right to self determination was on display during last night’s State of the Union speech by President Obama, a speech in which he didn’t mention Egypt at all.

"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," said Obama.

The White House issued a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at about 11:30 PM, after the president’s speech had concluded, expressing U.S. support of Egyptians right to peaceful assembly, but without any call for free and fair elections.

"The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals," the statement read.

During a Wednesday morning roundtable, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne Marie Slaughter explained the seeming disparity by noting that there was consistency in the sense that both stances include a respect for "universal values."

"That means we are strongly supportive of the Tunisians in the effort to achieve democracy, it also means we are not imposing our values on countries around the world," she said.

The New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons said that the George W. Bush administration, despite that it outwardly advocated for democratic change in the Arab world, might have taken a similar stance as the Obama administration has on Egypt.

"The notion that we’re somehow in the streets with every potential freedom movement would be a mistake in foreign policy," he said. "If this administration was out there calling for regime change in Egypt, I think that would be a huge mistake."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin