TUNIS, Tunisia – Weeks of violent protests fueled by corruption, high unemployment and a lack of liberty toppled one of the Arab world’s most entrenched leaders, who fled this North African country on Friday after 23 years of rule.
President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali handed power to his prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi. Authorities established a curfew throughout the nation of 10 million people, and the prime minister promised broad consultations on political and economic reforms.
Ben Ali’s departure was a major milestone in the Arab world, where longstanding authoritarian rulers exercise tight control. The Tunisian uprising, launched by the self-immolation of a 26-year-old street vendor who was being hassled by security forces, may be the first time in recent history in which an Arab public, rather than a political rival or foreign invader, has risen up to oust a dictator.
Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia and were welcomed in that country, according to Saudi Arabia’s state news agency.
The story, broadcast virtually nonstop to the region by satellite television channels, mesmerized the Arab world.
Demonstrations against kings and presidents in the Middle East usually are crushed by pervasive security forces. The kind of nationwide protests that forced Ben Ali to flee are rare, and they offer a glimpse at the vulnerabilities of leaders in countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where frustration with a lack of civil liberties and joblessness is high.
“The people came out to remove the head of state. I hope that what happened in Tunisia will be a domino in other countries,” said Larbi Chouikha, a political scientist at the Tunisian Institute of Press and Information Science.
Many people stocked up on provisions and were huddled in their homes for safety. But there also was a palpable sense of joy. At the international airport in Tunis, where travelers were caught between canceled flights and closed roads, Tunisians engaged in boisterous conversations about politics and the future, debates that long had been held only in hushed tones.
Although Ben Ali cooperated with the U.S. on security matters such as confronting al-Qaida, classified State Department documents released last month by WikiLeaks suggested that U.S. diplomats considered him a corrupt autocrat.
President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning violence against Tunisian citizens and calling for free and fair elections.
Tunisia, wedged between Algeria and Libya on the Mediterranean coast, has been among the more prosperous and stable countries in the region – but that has come at a cost.
A July 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks acknowledged that the country had enjoyed steady economic growth, was effective in delivering services to the population and was a model on women’s rights. But it also said flatly that Tunisia was a police state, and that change would have to wait until Ben Ali was no longer in power.
Ghannouchi said in an address carried live on television that Ben Ali was temporarily unable to carry out his duties.
“I promise to respect the constitution and to carry out political, economic and social reforms which have been announced,” he said. “I will do so with perfection and through consultation with all national bodies – including political parties, national organizations and civil society components.”
Chouikha, the political scientist, said many Tunisians considered Ghannouchi a viable interim figure. “He wasn’t as tainted by corruption as other politicians, and the people of the opposition regard him as credible,” he said.
But opposition activists also cautioned that even though Ben Ali had fled, the ruling party apparatus remained in place, and that the opposition still lacked organization, real leadership or clear aims.
Ben Ali, 74, had tried to stave off the gathering protest movement by promising in a televised speech Thursday night to step down before 2014 presidential elections, lift restrictions on liberties and improve the economy. Afterward, his supporters streamed into the streets to blow car horns in celebration, and state-controlled newspapers published cheery stories about a coming age of reform.
But among many others, the speech was derided as an empty gesture.
Ben Ali for weeks had labeled the protesters vandals and common criminals. But the crowd in downtown Tunis on Friday included doctors, lawyers and businessmen.
“Bread and water! No Ben Ali,” they chanted before a force of uniformed security officials.
“Not one year, not years, Ben Ali, leave today,” they chanted as they gathered Friday for protests in front of the Interior Ministry, a forbidding fortress that has long terrified ordinary Tunisians as a torture chamber for political prisoners.
As the day continued it became clear that huge numbers of Tunisians sided with the protesters against the government.
“We are with the people,” said one soldier who was confronted by a demonstrator.