Crisis in Tunisia Continues as President Flees, Prime Minister Ghannouchi Takes Control

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Al Jazeera English

Crisis in Tunisia Continues as President Flees, Prime Minister Ghannouchi Takes Control

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali leaves country following violent clashes in the capital, Tunis.

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Protesters chant slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Aliin during a demonstration in Tunis, Friday, Jan. 14, 2011. Thousands of angry demonstrators marched through Tunisia's capital Friday, demanding the resignation of the country's autocratic leader a day after he appeared on TV to try to stop deadly riots that have swept the North African nation. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Tunisia's long-standing president has left the country amid violent
protests and the prime minister has taken over control of the
government.

"Since the president [Zine El Abidine Ben Ali] is temporarily unable
to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will
exercise temporarily the [presidential] duties," Mohammed Ghannouchi,
the Tunisian prime minister, said on state television.

Ghannouchi is now the interim president. He cited chapter 56 of the
Tunisian constitution as the article by which he was assuming power.

Tensions remain high despite Ben Ali's exit, with protesters reported
to be ransacking government buildings in the capital, Tunis, and other
cities. Citizens have made appeals for protection of their property, as
several provinces are currently reporting unrest.

Protesters are reportedly demanding that the new interim president, a close Ben Ali ally, stand down.

There are conflicting reports regarding where Ben Ali is headed.

While Maltese air traffic controllers said that he is on his way to
Paris via Malta, other sources have indicated that he may be seeking
sanctuary in one of the Gulf countries.

In his televised address, Ghannouchi vowed to respect the
constitution and restore stability, and called on citizens to "maintain
patriotic spirit ... in order to brave through these difficult moments".

He also vowed to carry out inflation and unemployment redressal
policies "exactly" as they had recently been announced by Ben Ali.

Ayesha Sabavala, a Tunisia analyst with the Economist Intelligence
Unit in London, told Al Jazeera that with President Ben Ali out of the
country, there are "only ... a few people ... capable of [running the
country] within the RCD [the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique party], and Ghannouchi is an ideal candidate".

Abdel Karim Kebiri, a former senior adviser to the International
Labour Organisation, told Al Jazeera that "the people will be happy"
with Ben Ali's departure.

Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra said the days events were a "political earthquake" and "something unheard of".

He said that it was also as yet unclear what role the army was playing.

It was reportedly moving towards the capital to "take charge of the
situation from the security forces, which are seen by Tunisians as a
main problem for its long record of human rights abuses".

Violent unrest

Friday's developments come following weeks of violent clashes across the country over unemployment and rising food prices.

Matters came to a head in the capital, Tunis, on Friday, as police
tear-gassed protesters gathered outside the interior ministry building.
Witnesses said police used batons to disperse the crowd, but the
protesters insisted they would not leave until Ben Ali steps down.

Sabavala opined that Ben Ali's exit will "certainly lessen these
protests, but whether they completely stop - the only way that is going
to happen is if the interim government immediately starts implementing
plans to address the issues that have been at the core of these
protests".

"Simply bringing in an interim president, and especially one who has
been close to Ben Ali ... is not going to be enough," she said.

"Logically, there is bound to be a lot of distrust, because
Ghannouchi is part of the very close inner circle ... of Ben Ali. Past
promises that have been made [by that government] have not been kept."

Kamaal Bin Younis, a Tunisian journalist, reported that there have
been expressions of discontent with the choice of a Ben Ali ally as
interim president.

State media earlier reported that Ben Ali had imposed a state of
emergency in the country and promised fresh legislative elections within
six months in an attempt to quell the wave of dissent sweeping across
the country.

There were also reports that the airport in Tunis had been surrounded
by troops and the country's airspace has been closed. Air France, the
main international airline into and out of Tunisia announced that it had
ceased flights to Tunisia following that announcement.

State TV reported that gatherings of more than three people had been
banned, and that violators would be shot by security forces if they did
not heed their warnings.

Seventy-four year old Ben Ali had been
in power for the last 23 years, after taking power in a bloodless
coup. On Thursday, he vowed not to seek re-election and reduce food
prices in a bid to placate protesters.

But the pledges seemed to have little effect as fresh street protests erupted on Friday.

Growing frustration

The unrest in the country began on December 17, after a 26-year-old
unemployed graduate set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide.
Mohammed Bousazizi's act of desperation set off the public's growing
frustration with rising inflation and unemployment, and prompted a wave
of protests across the country.

Ghannouchi, 69, is a trained
economist who has been a close ally to Ben Ali for many years. Prime
minister since 1999, he is one of the best-known faces of Tunisia's
government. He also has served as the country's minister for
international cooperation and its minister of foreign investment.

Chapter 56 of the Tunisian constitution, under which Ghannouchi has
taken power, reads: "In the event the president of the republic is
incapable of discharging his duties temporarily, he may order for his
powers and authorities be delegated to the first minister, save the
right of dissolving the parliament.

"During this period of temporary incapacity, the government shall
remain standing until such state of incapacity is eliminated, even if
the government is chastised.

"The president shall inform the speaker of the parliament and the
chairman of the Advisers Board of the temporary delegation of his
powers."

Call for restraint

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has urged restraint.

"The political situation is developing fast and every effort must be
made by all concerned parties to establish dialogue and resolve problems
peacefully to prevent further loss, violence and escalations," he said.

US President Barack Obama has called for free and fair elections in
Tunisia, while a US State department statement said that the US
government believes that the Tunisian people have a right to choose
their own leaders.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, termed the situation in Tunisia
"very serious", and said that Germany will "closely monitor the
situation and take care of those Germans who are still in Tunisia".

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has said that France
recognises the "constitutional transition" in the country, and that his
country hopes for a "peaceful resolution" to the crisis.

Western countries urged their people to avoid travel to the popular
tourist destination due to the instability, and tour operators say they
are now working to evacuate nearly 6,000 holidaymakers from the country.

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