Tunisian Prime Minister Assumes Power After President Reportedly Flees Amid Riots
Published January 14, 2011
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has gone on state television to say he is assuming power in Tunisia.
The announcement Friday came after thousands of protesters mobbed the capital of Tunis to demand the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In response to the riots, the president declared a state of emergency in the North African nation, dissolved the government and promised new legislative elections within six months.
Unconfirmed news reports, citing unidentified government sources in Tunisia, said Ben Ali had left the country. The 74-year-old leader came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987, taking over for a man called formally President-for-Life.
Protesters thronged the capital, fueled by pent-up anger at high unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt. Marching through the city, they demanded Ben Ali's resignation and some even climbed onto the roof of the Interior Ministry -- a symbol of his iron-fisted regime.
Many shouted "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!" Another poster read "We won't forget," a reference to the rioters killed, many by police bullets.
In response, Ben Ali dissolved the government and also promised that early legislative elections would take place within six months, the official TAP news agency reported. He made no reference to any resignation of his own.
Under the state of emergency, a curfew barring the circulation of people or vehicles took effect immediately until 7 a.m. Saturday, TAP said. Security forces and soldiers "can use their weapons against any suspicious person who doesn't respect the order to stop or tries to flee," it warned.
In Paris, an Air France spokeswoman confirmed that Tunisia's air space had been ordered closed, adding that the French airline had stopped all its flights there until further notice. Lutfhansa also canceled its only flight to Tunis from Frankfurt.
Earlier, thousands of tourists were evacuated from the North African tourist haven, which is reeling from nearly a month of riots and a heavy-handed police response that has been condemned from abroad.
At least 23 people have been killed according to the government, but opposition members put the death toll at three times that. Crowds sang the national anthem, fists in the air.
"We want to end this dictatorship," said Wadia Amar, a university chemistry professor. "The Ben Ali clan should be brought to justice. They've taken everything."
Hundreds of police with shields and riot gear blocked the avenue Friday in front of the Interior Ministry, where over the years there have been reports of torture. The march was organized by Tunisia's only legal trade union, which also went ahead with a symbolic two-hour strike.
Helmeted police kicked and clubbed unarmed protesters -- one of whom cowered on the ground, covering his face.
An AP Television News reporter heard gunfire in the center of the Tunisian capital late Friday afternoon, in addition to the popping of tear gas pistols.
A few youths were spotted throwing stones, but most demonstrated calmly. Protesters were of all ages and from all walks of life, from students holding mid-street sit-ins shaking their fists to black-robed lawyers waving posters.
"A month ago, we didn't believe this uprising was possible," said Beya Mannai, a geology professor at the University of Tunis. "But the people rose up."
The new unrest came just a day after Ben Ali tried to quell the uproar by going on television to promise lower food prices and new freedoms for Tunisians.
Ben Ali, 74, has maintained an iron grip on Tunisia since grabbing power in 1987 in a bloodless coup, repressing any challenges. He has locked up many opposition figures, clamped down on dissent and kept tight control over the media but has not been able to resolve the country's rising unemployment, officially at nearly 14 percent, but higher for educated youths.
The riots started after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide in mid-December when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused generalized anger against the regime into a widespread, outright revolt.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have called Tunisia a "police state" and described the corruption there, and social networks like Facebook have helped spread the comments. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained for years felt vindicated to see the U.S. diplomatic cables.
The unrest has hurt the key tourism industry in Tunisia, which is known for its wide sandy beaches, desert landscape, ancient ruins and bustling bazaars.
British tour operator Thomas Cook said it was asking its roughly 3,800 British, Irish, and German customers in Tunisia to leave the country, while some 200 Dutch tourists were repatriated Thursday night via a chartered flight.
U.S. and European governments have issued a series of travel alerts warning citizens away from nonessential travel to Tunisia.
The unrest was having diplomatic consequences as well.
Tunisia's ambassador to the U.N. cultural and educational agency resigned amid the deadly riots. Mezri Haddad, ambassador to Paris-based UNESCO, said on France's BFM television Friday, "I am resigning today."
He said he is resigning because he doesn't want to contribute to something that "is the opposite of my convictions and my conscience."
An unusually contrite Ben Ali went on television Thursday, making sweeping pledges for political and media freedom. He also promised to leave the presidency when his term ends in 2014, and ordered prices on sugar, milk and bread slashed.
After he spoke, thousands filled the main tree-lined Avenue Bourguiba, cheering "Long live Ben Ali!" honking horns and waving flags.
Many people demonstrating Friday claimed the pro-Ben Ali rally on Thursday -- which broke a government-imposed curfew -- was staged by the powerful ruling RCD party, which paid jobless youths to participate. They claimed many of the cars that cruised the avenue, some with passengers standing on the car roofs, bore the blue license plates of rented vehicles.
"That was all prepared in advance," said Haitem Ouerghemi, 30, a call center worker. "It was a Hollywood scene."