Protest in Tunis
Photo: AFP

Tunisian president flees amid riots

Prime minister takes over after rioters throng capital decrying unemployment, corrupt leadership; US president condemns use of violence against citizens

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.


Gunfire rang out across Tunis, clouds of tear gas filled the streets and police beat any protesters they could grab.


Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said in a live address later that he had taken over from President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali on an interim basis. "Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the (presidential) duties," Ghannouchi said on state television.


Ben Ali's 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."


US President Barack Obama on condemned violence against Tunisian citizens and called on the government to hold free and fair elections soon. "I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people," Obama said in a statement.


"I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people."


'Ben Ali, assassin!'

Earlier Friday protesters thronged the capital, fueled by pent-up anger at high unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt. Marching through the city, they demanded Ben Ali's resignation and some even climbed onto the roof of the Interior Ministry, a symbol of his iron-fisted regime.  

Damage done by rioting (Photo: AFP)


Many shouted "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!" Another poster read "We won't forget," a reference to the rioters killed, many by police bullets.


In response, Ben Ali dissolved the government and also promised that early legislative elections would take place within six months, the official TAP news agency reported. He made no reference to any resignation of his own.


Thousands of tourists, meanwhile, were evacuated from the North African tourist haven, which is reeling from nearly a month of riots and a heavy-handed police response that has been condemned from abroad. At least 23 people have been killed according to the government, but opposition members put the death toll at three times that.


Crowds sang the national anthem, fists in the air.


"We want to end this dictatorship," said Wadia Amar, a university chemistry professor. "The Ben Ali clan should be brought to justice. They've taken everything."


Hundreds of police with shields and riot gear blocked the avenue Friday in front of the Interior Ministry, where over the years there have been reports of torture. The march was organized by Tunisia's only legal trade union, which also went ahead with a symbolic two-hour strike.


Helmeted police kicked and clubbed unarmed protesters, one of whom cowered on the ground, covering his face.


'The people rose up'

An AP Television News reporter heard gunfire in the center of the Tunisian capital late Friday afternoon, in addition to the popping of tear gas pistols.


A few youths were spotted throwing stones, but most demonstrated calmly. Protesters were of all ages and from all walks of life, from students holding mid-street sit-ins shaking their fists to black-robed lawyers waving posters.


"A month ago, we didn't believe this uprising was possible," said Beya Mannai, a geology professor at the University of Tunis. "But the people rose up."


The new unrest came just a day after Ben Ali tried to quell the uproar by going on television to promise lower food prices and new freedoms for Tunisians.


Ben Ali, 74, has maintained an iron grip on Tunisia since grabbing power in 1987 in a bloodless coup, repressing any challenges. He has locked up many opposition figures, clamped down on dissent and kept tight control over the media but has not been able to resolve the country's rising unemployment, officially at nearly 14 percent, but higher for educated youths.


The riots started after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide in mid-December when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused generalized anger against the regime into a widespread, outright revolt.


US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have called Tunisia a "police state" and described the corruption there, and social networks like Facebook have helped spread the comments. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained for years felt vindicated to see the US diplomatic cables.



פרסום ראשון: 01.14.11, 19:15
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