Foreign Secretary William Hague has arrived in Tunisia to meet the north African country’s new interim government just weeks after popular protests unseated former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Mr Hague’s visit comes at the start of a three-day trip taking in five countries in north Africa and the Middle East, at a time of continuing street demonstrations challenging the position of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
The Foreign Office imposed a media blackout on the trip until Mr Hague’s arrival on security grounds. But the Foreign Secretary blew his own cover by sending a message to Twitter from his iPhone more than six hours before the embargo was due to be lifted.
“Heading to Tunisia to meet the new interim government and show UK support for the people of Tunisia and their democratic hopes,” Mr Hague told his 30,055 followers on the micro-blogging website as he set off from the UK last night.
The Foreign Office declined to name the other four countries on Mr Hague’s itinerary.
Mr Ben Ali resigned and fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia on January 14 after weeks of protests against his 23-year rule.
His departure sparked a wave of instability across the Arab world, most notably in Egypt, where tens of thousands of protesters have occupied Tahrir Square to demand the removal of Mr Mubarak. Demonstrations have also been seen in Jordan, where King Abdullah II dismissed his government, and in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he would not stand for re-election.
The Foreign Office described the current period as “a time of great opportunity in the region” and said Mr Hague’s discussions would focus on “calls for greater political openness and economic development in the Middle East in the light of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt”.
In Tunisia, the Foreign Secretary is due to meet leading figures from the interim government including Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and International Co-operation Minister Mohamed Nouri Jouini.
The interim government has promised to hold fresh elections within six months and Mr Ghannouchi – who served for many years in the ousted president’s regime – has said he will retire from politics once they are complete.