By ELAINE GANLEY and BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA, Associated Press Jan. 14, 2010
TUNIS, Tunisia – Protesters enraged over soaring unemployment and
corruption drove Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power
Friday after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, an unprecedented popular
uprising in a region dominated by strongmen who do not answer to their
Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's ouster immediately worried, however,
about what's next: the caretaker leadership of the prime minister who took
control, and the role of the army in the transition.
The upheaval took place after weeks of escalating unrest fueled partly by
social media and cell phones, as thousands of demonstrators from all walks
of life rejected Ben Ali's promises of change and mobbed the capital of
Tunis to demand his ouster in the country's largest demonstrations in
At least 23 people have been killed in the riots, according to the
government, but opposition members put the death toll at more than three
On Friday, police repeatedly clashed with protesters, some of whom climbed
onto the entrance roof of the dreaded Interior Ministry, widely believed
for years to be a place where the regime's opponents were tortured.
With clouds of tear gas and black smoke drifting over the city's
whitewashed buildings, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state
television to announce that he was assuming power in this North African
nation previously known mostly for its wide sandy beaches and ancient
"I take over the responsibilities temporarily of the leadership of the
country at this difficult time to help restore security," Ghannouchi said
in a solemn statement on state television. "I promise ... to respect the
constitution, to work on reforming economic and social issues with care
and to consult with all sides."
The president promised legislative elections in six months, a pledge that
appeared to open at least the possibility of a new government.
President Barack Obama said he applauded the courage and dignity of
protesting Tunisians, and urged all parties to keep calm and avoid
Click image to see photos of riots in Tunisia
Tunisian air space was closed and the president's whereabouts were a
mystery. It was far from certain that his ouster would calm the streets.
Isolated gunfire broke out sporadically Friday night and a state of
emergency was in effect. European tour companies moved thousands of
tourists out of the country.
"My first reaction is relief," said Dr. Souha Naija, a resident
radiologist at Charles Nicole Hospital. "He's gone ... I finally feel
"They got the message. The people don't want a dictator." However, she
voiced concern for the future because, officially at least, Ben Ali
vacated power only temporarily.
"It's ambiguous," she said.
Ben Ali's downfall sent a potentially frightening message to autocratic
leaders across the Arab world. He deftly managed the economy of his small
country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern nations
grappling with sclerotic economies and booming, young populations, turning
it into a beach haven for tourists and beacon of stability in volatile
North Africa. There was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of
speech, but a better quality of life for many than in neighboring
countries like Algeria and Libya.
He had won frequent praise from abroad for presiding over reforms to make
the economy more competitive and attract business; growth last year was at
But unemployment was officially measured at 14 percent, but far higher
among the young — 52 percent of Tunisia's 10 million people — and despair
among job-seeking young graduates was palpable.
Arabs across the region celebrated on Twitter, Facebook and blogs at news
of the Tunisian uprising.
Thousands of Tweets congratulating the Tunisian people flooded the
Internet and many people changed their profile pictures to Tunisian flags.
Egyptian activists opposed to President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade
regime also looked to the events in Tunisia with hope.
About 50 Egyptians gathered outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo Friday
to celebrate with singing and dancing. They chanted, "Ben Ali, tell
Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too!"
Unconfirmed rumors about Ben Ali's location reached such a fevered pitch
that the governments of France and Malta — just two of several countries
where Ben Ali was speculated to be heading — put out statements saying
they have had no requests to accommodate him
The 74-year-old leader came to power in a bloodless palace coup in 1987.
He took over from a man called formally President-for-Life — Habib
Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on
a pro-Western course after independence from France in 1956.
Ben Ali removed Bourguiba from office for "incompetence," saying he had
become too old, senile and sick to rule. Ben Ali promised then that his
leadership would "open the horizons to a truly democratic and evolved
But after a brief period of reforms, Tunisia's political evolution stopped.
Ben Ali consistently won elections with overwhelmingly questionable
tallies: In 2009, he was re-elected for a fifth five-year term with 89
percent of the vote. Beforehand, he had warned opponents they would face
legal retaliation if they questioned the vote's fairness.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have called Tunisia a "police
state" and described the corruption there, saying Ben Ali had lost touch
with his people. Social networks like Facebook helped spread the comments
to the delight of ordinary Tunisians, who have complained about the same
issues for years.
Under Ben Ali, most opposition parties were illegal. Amnesty International
said authorities infiltrated human rights groups and harassed dissenters.
Reporters Without Borders described Ben Ali as a "press predator" who
controlled the media.
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.
The president tried vainly to hold onto power. On Thursday night he went
on television to promise not to run for re-election in 2014 and slashed
prices on key foods such as sugar, bread and milk. A day later he declared
the state of emergency, dissolving the government and promising new
legislative elections within six months.
Hundreds of police with shields and riot gear moved into the peaceful
demonstration nearly six hours after it began on the capital's main Friday
in front of the Interior Ministry. Helmeted police fired dozens of rounds
of tear gas and 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
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 to doctors in white coats 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
The prime minister suggested that Ben Ali had willingly handed over
control,but the exact circumstances of his removal from power were
The prime minister did not say anything about a coup or about the army
being in charge, saying only that he was taking over while the president
is "temporarily indisposed."
"Under Article 56 of the Constitution that holds that in a case of
temporary incapacity, the president can delegate by decree his power to
the prime minister. Given the temporary incapacity of the President to
carry out his duties, I take over the responsibilities temporarily of the
leadership of the country at this difficult time to help restore
security," Ghannouchi said.
Ghannouchi, 69, is a trained economist who has been a longtime close ally
of Ben Ali. Prime minister since 1999, he is one of the best-known faces
of Tunisia's government. He also has served as the country's minister for
international cooperation and its minister of foreign investment.
A founder of the main legal opposition party said the dramatic
developments do not amount to a coup d'etat.
"It's an unannounced resignation," Nejib Chebbi said by telephone. To
declare a permanent absence of a head of state, such as in a coup,
elections would have to be held within 60 days, he said. "So they declare
a temporary vacating of power."
Tour operator Thomas Cook said it was evacuating 3,800 British, Irish and
German vacationers from Tunisia as a precaution.
In Sudan in 1985, a collapsing economy and other grievances sparked a
popular uprising, although the government was eventually ousted by a
However, the closest parallel in the broader Middle East comes from Iran —
which is not an Arab nation — where mass demonstrations helped topple the
Shah and usher in the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Tunisia's giant neighbor Algeria saw huge protests before it was shaken by
a military coup in 1992, with a five-man leadership put in place after the
army canceled the nation's first multiparty legislative elections that a
Muslim fundamentalist party was poised to win. The party, the Islamic
Salvation Front, became a vehicle for popular dissent.
There were also massive demonstrations in Lebanon in 2005, dubbed the
"Cedar Revolution," but those were directed against Syrian influence in
the country and not the Lebanese government per se. The protests led to
the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and the resignation of
Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister and fresh elections.
Al-Qaida's North African offshoot appeared to try to capitalize on the
Tunisian unrest, offering its support for protesters this week. There has
been no sign of Islamic extremist involvement in the rioting.
Nicolas Garriga and Oleg Cetinic in Tunis, Angela Doland, Greg Keller and
Jamey Keaten in Paris and Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Cairo contributed to this