TUNIS — President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has left the country amid growing chaos in the streets, French diplomats say, and the prime minister went on state television Friday night to say he is temporarily in charge. A French Foreign Ministry official said authorities did not know where the president had gone, and representatives of the president were not immediately available to confirm the report. www.wdalaw.com
There were also unconfirmed reports that the country’s airspace had been closed. In his speech to the country, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said that “as the president of the republic is unable to exercise his functions for the time being, I have assumed, starting now, the powers of the president.”
“I call on all sons and daughters of Tunisia,” the prime minister said, “to show the spirit of patriotism and unity in order to enable our country, which is dear to all of us, to overcome this difficult phase and restore its security and stability.”
The apparent fall of Mr. Ben Ali, whose authoritarian government ruled for more than two decades, would mark the first time that widespread demonstrations had overthrown an Arab leader.
The country, which is determinedly secular, is a close United States ally in the fight against terrorism.
The prime minister’s announcement followed an extraordinary and fast-moving back-and-forth between the government and the protesters, who became increasingly emboldened over the last month of demonstrations. After the president tried to placate the protesters Thursday with promises of more freedom, including a right to demonstrate, tens of thousands rushed into the streets of downtown Tunis Friday to take advantage of his pledge by calling for his ouster
But when the protesters led a funeral procession for a recently killed protester through the streets, the police moved to disperse the crowds, brutally beating demonstrators and raining tear gas on the crowds who had gathered in front of the Interior Ministry. It is unclear if any demonstrators were shot Friday.
Mr. Ben Ali then announced that he had dismissed the Cabinet and would hold early legislative elections, but news agencies said the government also declared a state of emergency forbidding new demonstrations and warning that those who disobeyed would be shot. There were reports of gunfire downtown in the capital early Friday night, The Associated Press reported.
The reports that the president had left surfaced soon after that, as did the announcement by the prime minister. Mr. Ghannouchi did not say if he would re-instate the Cabinet.
The Obama administration was still trying to confirm that Mr. Ben Ali had left the country, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said at a White House press briefing Friday afternoon. He also noted the need for stability as the country undergoes “the process of much-needed political reform.”
Tunisia is far different from most of its neighboring Arab countries. There is little Islamist fervor in the country. It has a large middle class, and under Mr. Ben Ali, it has invested heavily in education. Not only are women not required to cover their heads, they enjoy a spectrum of civil rights, including free contraception, that is well beyond that in most countries in the region.
The educational investment has been a mixed blessing for the government, however, producing a generation of college educated young people who face bleak job prospects in Tunisia’s corruption-clogged economy.
The anti-government protests began a month ago when a college-educated street vendor burned himself to death in protest of his dismal prospects.
But the mounting protests quickly evolved from demands for more jobs to demands for political reforms, focusing mainly on the perceived corruption of the government and the self-enrichment of the ruling family. The protests were accelerated by the heavy use of social-media web sites like Facebook and Twitter by young people, who used the Internet to call for demonstrations and to circulate videos of each successive clash. Some demonstrators also cited the evidence of cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia that were released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks providing vividly detailed accounts of the first family’s self-enrichment and opulent lifestyle.
On Friday morning, the crowd that gathered in the streets of Tunis was celebrating its confidence that change was at hand. “Victory, victory, until the government falls,” protesters chanted.
“Bouazizi you are a hero,” they shouted, referring to the vendor who died. “The people of Tunisia have won.”