Tunisia protests force president from power

Weeks of violent protests fueled by corruption, widespread unemployment and a lack of liberty toppled one of the Arab world's most entrenched leaders, who fled this North African country Friday after 23 years of rule.

President Zine el Abidine ben Ali handed power to his prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi. Authorities established a curfew across the nation of 10 million people, and the prime minister promised broad consultations starting Saturday 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 after a street vendor who was being hassled by security forces set himself on fire, may be the first time in recent history in which an Arab public rather than a political rival or foreign invader has managed to oust a dictator.

The development, broadcast virtually nonstop across 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 of the vulnerabilities of leaders in countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where frustration with restricted 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 for other countries," said Larbi Chouikha, a political scientist at the Tunisian Institute of Press and Information Science.

Many people stocked up on provisions and remained in their homes for safety. But there also was a palpable sense of joy. At the international airport in the capital, 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 United States on security matters such as confronting Al Qaeda, classified State Department documents released last month by WikiLeaks suggested that U.S. diplomats considered him a corrupt autocrat.

President Obama issued a statement condemning violence against Tunisian citizens and calling for free and fair elections. He referred to Tunisians as brave and dignified, a comment that reverberated across the country.

In Washington, one U.S. official said the Obama administration had offered Tunisian authorities two pieces of advice: show restraint and don't cut off social media that government opponents used to communicate.

A second official expressed concern about whether Tunisia would continue to cooperate on fighting terrorism.

"The counter-terrorism portfolio is a top priority for us, and we're facing a lot of uncertainty now on this, to say the least," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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 State Department cable on Tunisia from July 2009 released by WikiLeaks acknowledged that the country had enjoyed steady economic growth, was effective in delivering services to the population and said it 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.

Another leaked cable, from 2008, tackled the issue of corruption, particularly among members of Ben Ali's large extended family.

"Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of 'the Family' is enough to indicate which family you mean," said the cable. "Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage."

It said that Ben Ali's wife, Leila, and her relatives, the Trabelsi family, provoked the greatest public ire for their "lack of education, low social status and conspicuous consumption."

Arab news reports said Ben Ali had arrived in Saudi Arabia.

Rumors circulated that a pilot had refused to allow Ben Ali's influential nephew Imed Trabelsi to leave the country, and he was reportedly being held in a military hospital. Another report, by Al Jazeera satellite channel, said he had been killed.

Other members of Ben Ali's family, including his wife and in-laws, either fled the country or were under arrest, pan-Arab television news channels reported.

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 that 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 and clear aims.

Ben Ali, 74, had tried to stave off the gathering protest movement by suggesting in a televised speech Thursday night that he wouldn't run in the 2014 presidential election, lift restrictions on liberties and improve the economy. Afterward his supporters streamed into the streets, honking 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.

For weeks, Ben Ali 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 the Tunisian people as a torture chamber for political prisoners.

A pharmacist who identified herself as Leila, who attended the demonstrations with her husband, said they wanted "freedom and real democracy."

"We want radical changes in the media, a new government and new president, and a new spirit in Tunisia," she said.

As the hours went by, it became clear that huge numbers of Tunisians sided with the protesters.

"We are with the people," said one soldier who was confronted by a demonstrator.

Human rights groups say at least 66 people have been killed since the protests began, including eight Thursday night and Friday morning.

Violence continued Friday night with reports of gunfire in the capital, its suburbs and other cities. There were reports of continuing clashes, including word that police were attacking demonstrators in Tunisia's second-largest city, Sfax, and that a math teacher had been shot by security forces. Witnesses also said protesters attacked a police station in the Tunis suburb of Marsa.

Some opposition activists said they hoped to rename the city's November 7th Square, named for the 1987 date of Ben Ali's ascent, in honor of Mohammad Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate making a living selling fruits and vegetables, who died of his burn injuries last week.

Some travel agencies began evacuating foreigners from Tunisia. Thomas Cook said it was taking about 1,800 British and Irish tourists and 2,000 Germans out of the country, news reports said.

daragahi@latimes.com

Hassaini is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo and Paul Richter in Washington, and special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.

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