Tunisian president toppled after 23 years in power
Tunisian president toppled after 23 years in power
by Dario Thuburn
2 hrs 21 mins ago
TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on Friday amid a wave of deadly social protests in a dramatic end to his 23 years in power that is wholly unprecedented for the Arab world.
In a solemn address on state television after a day of riots, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he had taken over as interim president.
He invoked an article in the constitution that allowed him to take over temporarily if the president was not able to carry out his duties.
"I call on Tunisians of all political persuasions and from all regions to demonstrate patriotism and unity," Ghannouchi said, promising to bring about social and political reforms in the tightly controlled north African state.
The government earlier promised to hold new elections in six months.
Government sources told AFP that Ben Ali had flown out from the main airport in the capital Tunis but his final destination was not immediately clear.
After earlier reports that Ben Ali may have been headed for France, Tunisia's former colonial overlord, officials there said they did not want him.
US President Barack Obama hailed the "courage" and "dignity" of the Tunisian people and called for free and fair elections in the country.
"I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia," Obama said in a statement.
"I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future," he added.
Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987 at a time of stagnation for Tunisia and he was initially hailed by many people for enacting liberal economic reforms as well as nipping in the bud the Islamist Ennahdha party.
Ghannouchi, a 69-year-old career bureaucrat who has served as prime minister on and off since 1999, has been one of Ben Ali's closest allies.
Analysts said the abrupt change of power was likely to send shockwaves around a region dominated by veteran leaders like the 74-year-old Ben Ali.
Tunisia borders two other authoritarian regimes -- Libya and Algeria.
The Tunisian president's departure represents the first time that an Arab leader has been forced to leave office by pressure from public protests.
"We want to express our support and recognition to the Tunisian people and their democratic aspirations, which should be achieved in a peaceful way," EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton and enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said.
The Tunisian government has declared a state of emergency and imposed a strict curfew because of the protests and the streets of central Tunis were largely silent after the announcement, following a tumultuous day of protest.
AFP reporters could hear occasional bursts of gunfire in the distance.
The rare protests in tightly controlled Tunisia were unleashed by the suicide attempt last month of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire after police prevented him from selling fruit and vegetables to make a living.
The 26-year-old graduate died of his injuries in hospital last week.
According to a Paris-based human rights group, at least 66 people have been killed in the protests, about three times higher than the official toll.
Medical sources told AFP that 13 protesters were shot dead on Thursday night alone despite orders from Ben Ali for police to stop live fire.
Earlier on Friday there were chaotic scenes in the heart of the capital as thousands of people massed to denounce the killings of protesters and to call on Ben Ali to step down. "Ben Ali is an assassin!" they chanted.
Riots later broke out, with protesters hurling rocks at police and starting fires in the streets as security forces fired volleys of tear gas.
Protesters even descended on the interior ministry, one of the most hated symbols of Ben Ali's iron-fisted rule, where they openly chanted for his swift departure and paid tribute to the "blood of the martyrs".
Similar scenes were repeated in other cities across Tunisia.
Soldiers have been deployed at strategic points around Tunis in recent days and the army has taken control of the main international airport in the city.
In an attempt to make concessions in recent days, Ben Ali had sacked some regime loyalists and promised to stand down at the end of his current mandate in 2014, as well as to lower the prices of basic foodstuffs.
But his promises ultimately failed to quell the anger in the streets.
"We just want democracy," said 24-year-old Hosni, a hotel worker with his face wrapped in a Tunisian flag against the tear gas.
Moncef Ben Mrad, the editor of an independent newspaper, said: "This is a demonstration of hope.
"It is the birth of a people who demand more freedom and that the families that have looted the country return the wealth and are called to account."
Meanwhile thousands of holidaymakers have been evacuated from the Mediterranean nation's beach resorts, and Europe and the United States have both advised their citizens against non-essential travel to the country.