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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.

President Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and urged the government to hold elections that "reflect the true will and aspirations" of Tunisians.

"The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold," Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

Despite the pledge of a new political opening, Ben Ali's fall from power opened a possibly dangerous horizon for Tunisia, a sunny nation of 10.5 million people known mainly as a cheerful tourist destination for European vacationers and a haven of tolerance in a region often unsettled by Islamist extremism.

With no obvious successor to Ben Ali in the wings, it was unclear whether Ghannoushi, as a heretofore faithful follower of the president, could muster authority to control the mobs who have been setting the agenda in Tunis over the past several weeks. Streets were reported quiet Friday evening under heavy security.

Ben Ali, who received a military education in France, had been a pillar of the government and the main security enforcer under Tunisia's independence leader and longtime president, Habib Bourguiba. In November 1987, with Bourguiba showing increasing signs of senility after 30 years as president, Ben Ali pushed aside his mentor in a bloodless coup and began his own reign of more than two decades.

As a result, Tunisia has had only two real leaders since its independence from France in 1956. Its political tradition has seen none of the give-and-take between ruling and opposition parties that is normally associated with democracy and that prepares the way for new leadership. This was particularly true in the recent years of Ben Ali's rule, when government critics were silenced by imprisonment and newspapers and broadcast stations were subject to strict censorship.

Responding to criticism over his authoritarian ways, Ben Ali's apologists pointed to the need to preserve Tunisia from the Islamist extremism that troubled other nations in the Arab world. Just to the west, for instance, Algeria was forced to fight a bloody civil conflict in the 1990s against Islamist rebels and still suffers regular attacks from underground insurgents belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Against that background, Western governments, including those of France and the United States, were reluctant to issue public criticism of Ben Ali's authoritarian methods.

Only Thursday, after a month of confrontations in which nongovernmental organizations estimated that more than 50 demonstrators were killed, did France accuse Ben Ali of using disproportionate violence against the protesters.

In addition, Ben Ali's government produced economic growth that has averaged 5 percent a year for the past decade, much of it due to the tourist groups that fly in to enjoy the Mediterranean beaches and Tunisians' instinctive hospitality. Education was a high priority in those prosperous years, absorbing 7 percent or 8 percent of the budget and sending 80,000 university graduates on to the job market every year.

With the global economic crisis cutting into tourist revenue, however, many of the young graduates found they could not get a job, particularly in inland towns far from the beaches. Moreover, resentment built steadily in recent years over swelling corruption, from the top levels of Ben Ali's government to local town halls. U.S. diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks reported on the dissatisfaction that had spread across the country as the corruption became more visible.

Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali's wife, and her family were reputed to have used the influence associated with the presidency to build private fortunes in real estate and other business deals. As protest violence - fueled by social media such as Facebook and Twitter - spread across the country beginning last month, rioters frequently directed their wrath at property associated with the Trabelsi family.

The simmering discontent erupted into the open Dec. 17 in the inland city of Sidi Bouzid after an unlicensed fruit vendor identified as Mohammed Bouazzi set himself afire. Bouazzi acted after a policeman confiscated the wares off his cart and, according to news reports, after he was slapped by a female city hall employee to whom he had turned to complain.

From there violence quickly spread to other cities. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to put down the protests, with a steadily rising casualty count increasing the anger among unemployed youths and long-suppressed political opponents.

By Tuesday, the rioting had spread to Tunis, and protesters were demanding that Ben Ali step down. In actions that would have been unheard of only a few weeks ago, the president's photo was ripped from walls and police stations were ransacked.

In what was seen as a last gesture to save his rule, Ben Ali earlier Friday had declared a state of emergency, fired his entire government and promised to hold early legislative elections within six months. That promise followed by only hours a pledge to leave office by 2014 and to order police to stop firing on protesters, release those arrested in the riots and lift the country's suffocating censorship.

Warrick reported from Washington.

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