Tunisia’s president has left power for good, the president of the country’s Constitutional Court said today, declaring that the leader of the lower house of parliament would assume power until elections are held in two months.
It was the second time power has changed hands in the North African country in less than 24 hours.
Massive street protests over corruption and unemployment forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on Friday night after 23 years of iron-fisted rule.
Saudi King Abdullah’s palace confirmed early today that the ousted president and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for “peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia”.
When Ben Ali left, prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return.
But Constitutional Council president Fethi Abdennadher said today that Ben Ali had permanently vacated his position and MP Fouad Mebazaa had up to 60 days to organise new elections.
Ben Ali’s ousting was the key demand of a month of protests that have swept the Mediterranean nation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins.
While the protests were mostly peaceful, after Ben Ali’s departure rioters burned the main train station in the capital of Tunis and looted shops.
Soldiers intervened today to try to stop looters from sacking a huge supermarket in the Ariana area, 20 miles north of the capital. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.
A helicopter circled low over the capital, apparently acting as a spotter for fires or pillaging. Gunfire crackled anew today.
Overnight, public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighbourhoods on the capital’s outskirts, recounting attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants.
Ghannouchi – who held power for less than 24 hours – told TV stations overnight that he had ordered the army and other security forces to intervene immediately in those neighbourhoods.
There has been no official announcement about Ben Ali’s whereabouts in Saudi Arabia, but a source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 310 miles south of Jeddah.
The source said Ben Ali had been taken there to avoid sparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians living in the larger, seaside city of Jeddah.
The president’s 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 Ben Ali’s belated 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.