Unrest continues in Tunisia as President Ben Ali flees country

Violent anti-government protests drove Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power Friday after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, as anger over soaring unemployment and corruption spilled into the streets.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 12:48 PM

PARIS - After four weeks of steadily escalating riots across Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali lost his grip on power Friday. The country's prime minister announced that he was taking over to organize early elections and usher in a new government.

Ben Ali, 74, fled the North African country. After several hours of mystery over his whereabouts, the office of Saudi King Abdullah confirmed early Saturday that Ben Ali and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia.

Although the Saudi announcement did not say how long Ben Ali planned to stay, the day's events suggested that his 23 years as Tunisia's ruler were over, submerged by a wave of unrest set off by economic deprivation, official corruption and political frustration in the mostly Sunni Muslim country.

Chaos and looting continued Saturday, and soldiers traded fire with gunmen near the Interior Ministry in Tunis, the capital, the Associated Press reported. Officials set free more than 1,000 prisoners in the coastal city of Mahdia after inmates staged a deadly rebellion, and at least 42 people were killed in a prison fire in another town.

The spectacle of the iron-fisted leader being swept from office was certain to resonate elsewhere in the Arab world. Smaller protests have erupted in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria in recent weeks as the region's many autocratic governments, often in power without the underpinning of democratic elections, have come under increasing pressure from similarly frustrated young people.

During a trip to the region this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeatedly warned governments there that they must expand political and social freedoms or face unrest or worse. Clinton reacted Friday to Ben Ali's departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections.

"We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia's future with economic, social and political reforms," she said.

The United States has long considered Tunisia an important ally, in part because of Ben Ali's close cooperation with U.S. security officials in fighting al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. U.S. officials and regional experts say the United States has not been a target of the protests, which have focused mainly on economic issues and political freedoms.

A senior administration official who has closely followed events in Tunisia said the State Department has been quietly pressuring Ben Ali's government to undertake reforms.

The prime minister, Mohammed Ghannoushi, 69, in a solemn appearance on national television, vowed to abide by the constitution in laying the groundwork for a vote to choose a new government as soon as possible, in consultation with all political factions and social groups. He was not flanked by military officers and gave no explanation of Ben Ali's removal.

"Since the president is temporarily without the capacity to carry out his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister would exercise his functions," Ghannoushi said from the presidential palace in Carthage, near Tunis. "I call on Tunisians of all political and regional tendencies to show patriotism and unity."

However, the leader of the Constitutional Council declared Saturday that Ben Ali's departure was permanent, not temporary, and that under the constitution the speaker of parliament should assume office. Fouad Mebazaa took over from Ghannoushi and has two months to organize new elections, the Associated Press reported.

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