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End of an era

January 14, 2011

Tunisian President Ben Ali has left the country amid severe civil unrest. Earlier he imposed a state of emergency, fired his government and announced plans to call early legislative elections in six months.

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Ben Ali is trying to take the sting out of the social unrestImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has left the country, state television reported on Friday. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he is assuming power in Tunisia.

In a television address Ghannouchi said he would respect the constitution and restore stability.

"I vow that I will respect the constitution and implement the political, economic and social reforms that have been announced ... in consultation with all political sides including political parties and civil society."

It comes hours after Ben Ali imposed a state of emergency across the country and a nighttime curfew, amid the worst civil unrest of his 23 years in power.

"The president has given orders to Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to create a new government. Following acts of violence, it has been decided to introduce a state of emergency in the country to protect Tunisian citizens," state television said.

"This state of emergency means that any gathering of more than three people is forbidden, that arms will be used by security forces in cases where a suspect does not stop when asked to do so by the police and thirdly, a curfew (is imposed) from 5:00 this evening until 7:00 in the morning for an indefinite period."

All change at the top

Earlier in the day the president fired his government and called an early parliamentary election earlier in the day in an increasingly frantic effort to quell the unrest.

Protestors in Tunis
Thousands of protestors have gathered in cities around the countryImage: AP

In response to riots, Tunisian police fired rounds of tear gas at thousands of protesters in the capital. Some demonstrators climbed atop the roof of the interior ministry, a symbol of the government they want to oust.

Thousands of Tunisian protestors continued their march through the capital, Tunis, during the day shouting slogans against the country's long-term incumbent President Ben Ali.

The anti-government protestors chanted, "No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues."

As tension in Tunisia continues to rise, tourists have been urged to leave, with holiday operator Thomas Cook evacuating around 2,000 Germans and 1,800 British and Irish tourists from the country.

This latest round of marches follows a seemingly failed attempt at calming the situation by Ben Ali, who announced Thursday he would not seek reelection when his term expires in 2014, amid some of the worst unrest the country has seen in his 23-year rule.

Demonstrators are protesting, among other things, high unemployment rates, as well as what they say is the increasingly repressive government of Ben Ali.

The government has tried unsuccessfully to impose overnight curfews on Tunis, though for several hours afterwards crowds have continued to gather in hot spots around the city.

President admits 'wrong'

In a television address to the nation on Thursday night, Ben Ali told Tunisians, "I have understood you." He added that he would not increase the upper age limit for presidents set by Tunisia's constitution, meaning he would not be eligible to run again in 2014.

The 74-year-old president also said he had ordered his troops to stop using live ammunition against protestors, saying he did not want any more Tunisians to die.

"Enough firing of real bullets," he said, adding in a rare admission that he had been "wrong" in his analysis of the country's social ills and promising that a full inquiry would be held that would establish "each and everyone's responsibilities."

Police in Tunisia
Police may fire on protetsers breaking the curfewImage: AP

"I refuse to see new victims fall," he said. "Enough of the violence, enough of this violence … I say again to you here that I want to deepen democracy and to revitalize pluralism in our country."

The European Union has welcomed the moves by Ben Ali, with a spokesperson for EU foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton commenting that it "creates some opportunity for a smooth transition."

A senior government member commented Friday that a unity government could be a potential remedy to current instability. Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane said a power-sharing deal similar to that reached in Kenya and Zimbabwe was "completely feasible."

Positive response

Tunisian opposition parties have welcomed the president's speech, which comes after nearly a month of riots in which rights groups say upwards of 50 people have been killed in clashes with police. The Tunisian Interior Ministry, however, has acknowledged only 21 deaths.

"This speech opens up possibilities," declared Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties. He added, however: "These intentions still have to be applied."

In an earlier attempt to defuse the tension, Ben Ali on Wednesday removed his interior minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, who was responsible for the Tunisian police force, and ordered the release of all protestors in police custody.

Author: Darren Mara, Natalia Dannenberg (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner