- Associated Press - Friday, January 14, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Violent anti-government protests drove Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power Friday after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, as anger over soaring unemployment and corruption spilled into the streets.

Thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life mobbed the capital of Tunis to demand Mr. Ben Ali’s ouster, the culmination of weeks of protests that have swept the country. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to announce that he is assuming power in this North African nation known for its wide sandy beaches and ancient ruins.

The shakeup was certain to have repercussions in the Arab world and beyond — as a sign that even a leader as entrenched and powerful as Mr. Ben Ali could be brought down by massive public outrage.

The president tried vainly to hold onto power amid the riots, declaring a state of emergency Friday, dissolving the government and promising new legislative elections within six months. On Thursday night he went on television to promise not to run for re-election in 2014 and slashed prices on key foods such as sugar, bread and milk.

Yet Friday produced the largest demonstrations in generations. Police repeatedly clashed with protesters, some of whom climbed the walls of the dreaded Interior Ministry, site of torture reports for years. Clouds of tear gas and black smoke hung over the city’s whitewashed buildings and tour operators hurriedly evacuated thousands of tourists.

Protesters hold a banner reading "Ben Ali get out", calling for the resignation of Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the capital, Tunis, Friday, Jan. 14,2011. (AP Photo)
Protesters hold a banner reading “Ben Ali get out”, calling for the ... more >

Tunisian air space was closed and unconfirmed news reports citing unidentified government sources said Ben Ali had left the country.

His whereabouts were not known and the details about his removal from power were unclear. The prime minister did not say anything about a coup or about the army being in charge, saying only that he was taking over while the president is “temporarily indisposed.”

“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. “I promise … to respect the constitution, to work on reforming economic and social issues with care and to consult with all sides.”

The state of emergency remained in effect after the prime minister’s announcement, and the streets of central Tunis fell mostly quiet after a day of rioting and volleys of tear gas. A black armored vehicle stood behind the Interior Ministry. Brief, isolated shots of gunfire could be heard into the night.

Earlier in the day, tour operator Thomas Cook said it was evacuating 3,800 British, Irish and German vacationers from Tunisia as a precaution. Tourism is one of the nation’s key industries.

The 74-year-old leader came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987. He took over from a man called formally President-for-Life — Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after independence from France in 1956.

Mr. Ben Ali removed Mr. Bourguiba from office for “incompetence,” saying he had become too old, senile and sick to rule. Ben Ali promised then that his leadership would “open the horizons to a truly democratic and evolved political life.”

But after a brief period of reforms early on, Tunisia’s political evolution stopped.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have called Tunisia a “police state” and described the corruption there, saying Mr. Ben Ali had lost touch with his people. Social networks like Facebook helped spread the comments to the delight of ordinary Tunisians, who have complained about the same issues for years.

Under Mr. Ben Ali, most opposition parties were illegal. Amnesty International said authorities infiltrated human rights groups and harassed dissenters. Reporters Without Borders described Mr. Ben Ali as a “press predator” who controlled the media.

Story Continues →