Friday, January 14, 2011

Tunisian President Ben Ali flees country amid unrest; prime minister takes reins

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 14, 2011; 4:58 PM

PARIS - After four weeks of steadily escalating riots across Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali lost his grip on power Friday. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi announced he was taking over the North African country to organize early elections and usher in a new government.




News reports said Ben Ali, 74, had fled the country, but his whereabouts were not publicly known. Wherever he was hiding, the day's events suggested his 23 years as Tunisia's ruler were over, submerged by a wave of popular unrest set off by economic deprivation, official corruption and political frustration among the country's 10.5 million mostly Sunni Muslim inhabitants.

The spectacle of an iron-fisted former interior minister apparently being swept from office by an uprising of the unemployed and politically shut out was certain to be closely watched elsewhere in the Arab world. The region's many authoritarian governments, often in power without the underpinning of democratic elections, have come under increasing pressure from similarly frustrated youths.

Ghannoushi, 69, in a solemn appearance on national television, vowed to abide by the constitution in laying 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 the capital of Tunis. "I call on Tunisians of all political and regional tendencies to show patriotism and unity."

Despite the pledge of a new political opening, Ben Ali's apparent fall from power opened a new and possibly dangerous horizon for Tunisia, a sunny nation known mainly as a cheerful tourist destination for European vacationers and a haven of tolerance in a region often unsettled by Islamic extremism.

With no obvious successor in the wings, it was unclear whether Ghannoushi, as a heretofore faithful Ben Ali follower, 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 rein of more than two decades.

As a result, Tunisia has had only two real leaders since its independence from France in 1957. 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 alternate leaderships. 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 Islamic 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 Islamic rebels and still suffers regular attacks from underground insurgents in 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 confrontation in which non-governmental organizations estimated that more than 50 demonstrators were killed, did France accuse Ben Ali of using disproportionate violence against the protests.

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 revenues, 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 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 violence 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, the capital, and protesters were demanding that Ben Ali step down. In what 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 an earlier 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.

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