UPDATE: Tunisia replaces leader for second time in as many days after president Ben Ali ousted
Tunisia replaced its leader for the second time in as many days as the government sought to find a new equilibrium following the ouster of the president for the past 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, amid violent street protests over unemployment and corruption.
Parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazaa, 77, who on Saturday took over from prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi as the interim president, called for a national unity government in his first public address. Elections will be held within 60 days, Al Jazeera TV said.
Soldiers fanned out in the streets on Saturday and army helicopters flew over the capital, Tunis, where rioters looted stores and torched state buildings after Ben Ali’s January 14 departure. There weren’t reports of the widespread anti- government demonstrations that marked the last several weeks.
The main unknown is whether the new government “will continue the old regime of Ben Ali or start anew, announcing real elections and a coalition government made up of all parts of society to hold free elections,” said Malika Zeghal, a North Africa expert and professor of contemporary Islamic thought at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Tunisian protests may embolden demonstrators who have recently taken to the streets in other North African and Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, all of which have experienced demonstrations about economic conditions, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Ben Ali and other Arab strongmen have left no organized political opposition in their countries, Ottaway said.
The crisis sparked a 12.7 percent slump in the Tunindex this past week. The benchmark rose 0.4 percent on January 14 after declining to a two-year low the previous day. Fitch Ratings put its BBB foreign debt rating on Tunisia to rating watch negative on January 14.
The protests about unemployment, forecast at 13.1 percent for 2011, began when a 26-year-old man in the central province of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire. They escalated into a nationwide condemnation of government repression and corruption.
At least 23 people died in demonstrations, according to the government, although Al Arabiya on January 13 cited unidentified human rights groups as saying 66 died.
The army took control of security nationwide from the police January 14, state television said. Public gatherings of more than three people were banned and security forces were authorized to shoot anyone who violated the order, according to the broadcaster.
In telephone interviews with local television, Ghannouchi called on residents to join forces to protect their belongings and described the situation as security chaos.
At least 42 people were killed in a fire that broke out at Monastir prison, Agence Tunis Afrique Presse reported on Saturday, citing medical sources. Tens of people were killed in clashes in Mahdia prison, Al Jazeera reported, showing bodies of dead prisoners.
A plane carrying Ben Ali, 74, arrived in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s Royal Court said in a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency on Saturday. Saudi Arabia “welcomed the arrival” of Ben Ali and his family, it said.
The French government said on Saturday it had taken steps to block any “suspect financial transfer” of Tunisian assets in France.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that on her trip to the Middle East this past week, she “heard people everywhere yearning for economic opportunity, political participation and the chance to build a better future.”
“In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” she said January 13 in remarks at the Forum on the Future, a conference on civil society held this year in Doha, Qatar.
Lawyers, human rights groups and trade union will take part in proposed talks on the formation of a Tunisian national unity government, Al Arabiya reported, without saying how it got the information.
Facebook and Twitter were used to organize the protests that made Ben Ali the first Arab leader to be forced out by popular unrest since at least 1985, when demonstrations in Sudan led to a coup that ousted President Gaafar al-Nimeiri. In 2005, demonstrations in Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.
Ben Ali, who seized power from President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, went on television before he fled to vow the country would not have a “president for life.”
This is great for Tunisia after many years of dictatorship and hardship.
The worst part is that there is no real political system in place to effectively take over and run the country.
Like a famous song says: "the growth of a nation cannot be achieved, by keeping the down-trodden down".
Let us hope that this drive for freedom spreads to other nations that do not respect their citizens.