Unrest continues in Tunisia as President Ben Ali flees country

PARIS – After four weeks of steadily escalating riots across Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali lost his grip on power Friday. The country’s prime minister announced that he was taking over to organize early elections and usher in a new government.

Ben Ali, 74, fled the North African country. After several hours of mystery over his whereabouts, the office of Saudi King Abdullah confirmed early Saturday that Ben Ali and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia.

Although the Saudi announcement did not say how long Ben Ali planned to stay, the day’s events suggested that his 23 years as Tunisia’s ruler were over, submerged by a wave of unrest set off by economic deprivation, official corruption and political frustration in the mostly Sunni Muslim country.

Chaos and looting continued Saturday, and soldiers traded fire with gunmen near the Interior Ministry in Tunis, the capital, the Associated Press reported. Officials set free more than 1,000 prisoners in the coastal city of Mahdia after inmates staged a deadly rebellion, and at least 42 people were killed in a prison fire in another town.

The spectacle of the iron-fisted leader being swept from office was certain to resonate elsewhere in the Arab world. Smaller protests have erupted in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria in recent weeks as the region’s many autocratic governments, often in power without the underpinning of democratic elections, have come under increasing pressure from similarly frustrated young people.

During a trip to the region this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeatedly warned governments there that they must expand political and social freedoms or face unrest or worse. Clinton reacted Friday to Ben Ali’s departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections.

“We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social and political reforms,” she said.

The United States has long considered Tunisia an important ally, in part because of Ben Ali’s close cooperation with U.S. security officials in fighting al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. U.S. officials and regional experts say the United States has not been a target of the protests, which have focused mainly on economic issues and political freedoms.

A senior administration official who has closely followed events in Tunisia said the State Department has been quietly pressuring Ben Ali’s government to undertake reforms.

The prime minister, Mohammed Ghannoushi, 69, in a solemn appearance on national television, vowed to abide by the constitution in laying the groundwork for a vote to choose a new government as soon as possible, in consultation with all political factions and social groups. He was not flanked by military officers and gave no explanation of Ben Ali’s removal.

“Since the president is temporarily without the capacity to carry out his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister would exercise his functions,” Ghannoushi said from the presidential palace in Carthage, near Tunis. “I call on Tunisians of all political and regional tendencies to show patriotism and unity.”

However, the leader of the Constitutional Council declared Saturday that Ben Ali’s departure was permanent, not temporary, and that under the constitution the speaker of parliament should assume office. Fouad Mebazaa took over from Ghannoushi and has two months to organize new elections, the Associated Press reported.

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.