Tunisian president flees after popular uprising

After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, the president of Tunisia was driven from power by violent protests over soaring unemployment and corruption.

After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, the president of Tunisia was driven from power by violent protests over soaring unemployment and corruption.

Virtually unprecedented in modern Arab history, the populist uprising sent an ominous message to authoritarian governments that dominate the region.

The office of Saudi King Abdullah confirmed early today that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, after several hours of mystery over his whereabouts.

“As a result of the Saudi kingdom’s respect for the exceptional circumstances the Tunisian people are going through, and with its wish for peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia, we have welcomed” him, the statement said.

Tunisians buoyant over Mr Ben Ali’s ousting faced uncertainly, however, about what is next for the North African nation.

The country was under the caretaker leadership of the prime minister who took control, the role of the army in the transition was unknown, and it was uncertain whether Mr Ben Ali’s departure would be enough to restore calm.

The ousting followed the country’s largest protests in generations and weeks of escalating unrest, sparked by one man’s suicide and fuelled by social media, mobile phones and young people who have seen relatively little benefit from Tunisia’s recent economic growth.

Thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life rejected Mr Ben Ali’s promises of change and mobbed Tunis, the capital, to demand that he leave.

The government said at least 23 people have been killed in the riots, but opposition members put the death toll at more than three times that.

Yesterday, 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 known mostly for its wide sandy beaches and ancient ruins.

“I take over the responsibilities temporarily of the leadership of the country at this difficult time to help restore security,” Mr 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 prime minister, a long-time ally of the president, suggested that Mr Ben Ali had willingly handed over control, but the exact circumstances were unclear.

In a string of last-ditch efforts to stop the unrest, Mr Ben Ali dissolved the government and promised legislative elections within six months – a pledge that appeared to open at least the possibility of a new government.

Before his removal of power was announced, he declared a state of emergency, including a curfew that was in effect last night and was to be lifted today.

Isolated bursts of gunfire broke a general quiet in the evening. But overnight, in a sign that Mr Ben Ali’s departure hadn’t fully restored calm, plainclothes police were seen hustling some people off the streets of Tunis: One was clubbed, another was dragged on the ground.

European tour companies moved thousands of tourists out of the country. Foreign airlines halted service to Tunisia, and said the country’s airspace had been temporarily shut down.

Mr Ben Ali’s downfall sent a potentially frightening message to autocratic leaders across the Arab world, especially because he did not seem especially vulnerable until very recently.

He managed the economy of his small country of 10m better than many other Middle Eastern nations grappling with calcified economies and booming young populations.

He turned Tunisia into a beach haven for tourists, helping create an area 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 neighbouring countries such as Algeria and Libya.

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