Saturday, January 15, 2011
Tarek Amara and Christian Lowe
TUNIS: A surge of anger in the streets over police repression and poverty swept Tunisia’s veteran leader from power Friday, sending a chill through unpopular authoritarian governments across the Arab world.
Former President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali stepped aside after more than two decades in power and looked to have flown out of the country. His exact whereabouts were unclear.
Ben Ali’s prime minister told Tunisians he would steer the state until early polls. The streets of the capital were calm amid heavy security, but analysts questioned whether the change of face at the top would satisfy the protesters.
After days of violence that spread from provincial towns to Tunis, leaving dozens dead as security forces struggled to contain demonstrators, the government declared a state of emergency Friday and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The last ditch attempt to reassert control failed and within hours it was announced Ben Ali had quit.
The violence and rapid turn of events sent shockwaves across the Arab world, where similar authoritarian rulers are deeply entrenched, but face-mounting pressures from growing young populations, economic hardship and the appeal of militant Islam.
Tunis appeared relatively calm Friday night and there was no evidence of new protests after the announcement by Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannouchi that he would act as president until elections could be held.
But occasional gunfire could still be heard. Police helicopters flew over the city after Ghannouchi, in an interview with a private television channel, vowed to protect people from looters.
The calm appeared fragile as some Tunisians said demonstrators could soon resume.
Others, however, were in a more jubilant mood. In the town of Menzel Bouzaiane, south of Tunis, about 5,000 people gathered in the streets to celebrate Ben Ali’s apparent departure, local trade union activist Mohammad Fadhel said.
It remained unclear where Ben Ali was, with Al-Jazeera television reporting Ben Ali was flying to the Gulf and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV saying he was heading to Qatar.
He had been originally thought to have flown to France, Tunis’s former colonial power, but French media quoted President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying that France had refused to give Ben Ali permission to enter the country.
Mohammad Ben Kilani, a pilot with national airline Tunisair, said on Tunisia’s Hannibal private TV station that members of the former first lady’s family asked him to fly them out of the country Friday morning but he refused.
The United States led international calls for calm and for the people of Tunisia to be given a free choice of leaders.
“I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” said U.S. President Barack Obama.
Western countries urged their citizens to avoid travel to the popular tourist destination due to the instability. Holiday operator Thomas Cook said it was evacuating almost 4,000 German, British and Irish tourists from Tunisia.
It remained uncertain how far those around Ben Ali, only the second president Tunisia has had since independence from France, were ready to relinquish power to opposition groups.
“Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties,” Ghannouchi said.
“I call on the sons and daughters of Tunisia, of all political and intellectual persuasions, to unite to allow our beloved country to overcome this difficult period and to return to stability.”
In power since 1987, Ben Ali had declared a state of emergency earlier Friday and said protesters would be shot in an increasingly violent confrontation. He had also dismissed the government and called an early parliamentary election.