- - Sunday, January 16, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia | Tunisian authorities struggled to restore order Sunday, arresting the top presidential security chief and trying to stop gunfights that erupted in and beyond the capital. One clash broke out around the deposed president’s palace on the Mediterranean shore, another near the headquarters of the main opposition party.

Observers worldwide were looking to see which way the North African nation would turn as its new leadership sought to tamp down the looting, arson and random violence that has occurred since autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday. The nation was in the midst of an unprecedented power shift for the Arab world.

Tensions appeared to be mounting between Tunisians buoyant over Mr. Ben Ali’s departure and loyalists in danger of losing major perks built up under his patronage. Tunisian police made dozens of arrests, some for drive-by shootings on buildings and people in the capital, Tunis.

The security chief Ali Seriati and his deputy were charged with a plot against state security, aggressive acts and for “provoking disorder, murder and pillaging,” the TAP state news agency reported.

Meanwhile, emboldened democracy activists and bloggers celebrated Mr. Ben Ali’s downfall and warned their own leaders in the Middle East they face a similar fate.

In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for three decades, one Facebook page was titled “Project to prepare a plane for each president” and several pages called on the 82-year-old leader to start packing his bags.

“Enough is enough. We are fed up and we will not let our country slip from our hands any longer,” said one Facebook user. Another called on Mr. Ben Ali to “tell Mubarak a plane is also waiting for him.”

Rights campaigners latched onto the Internet’s potential to circumvent tight media restrictions — Tunisia’s draconian firewall failed to stop images of wounded demonstrators reaching the Web and sparking wider protests.

“All countries in the Arab World [are] sitting on a volcano that might erupt anytime!” wrote Twitter user Abu Ahmad.

“The coming days will be full of surprises. We may see what we never thought could be … All of the Arab regimes are dictatorial and illegal,” said a Facebook user from the United Arab Emirates who identified himself as Bin Khaimawi Khaimawi.

Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said Persian Gulf activists were involved in the Tunisian uprising through Twitter and Facebook. They participated through the Internet.

To cheers and smiles, some residents of Tunis tore down massive portraits of Mr. Ben Ali that were omnipresent during his rule, hanging on lampposts and billboards, gazing down over shops and hotels. Some stretched several stories high.

A gunbattle broke out around the presidential palace in late afternoon in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, about 10 miles north of Tunis. The army and members of the newly appointed presidential guard fought off attacks from militias loyal to Mr. Ben Ali, said a member of the new presidential guard. Helicopters were surveying the zone.

Dozens of people have died in a month of clashes between police and protesters angry about the repression and corruption under Mr. Ben Ali — unrest that ended his 23-year regime.

Many Tunisians were especially overjoyed at the prospect of life without Mr. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks had discussed the high levels of nepotism and corruption displayed by her clan. But U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley rejected any notion that WikiLeaks disclosures led to the revolution in Tunisia, saying Sunday that Tunisians were already well aware of the graft, nepotism and lavish lifestyles of the former president and his relatives.

From combined dispatches

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