By Heba Saleh in Tunis
January 13 2011
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president of Tunisia, has been forced out of office by weeks of protests in which dozens have been killed. State television announced that had he had fled to Malta and would be replaced temporarily by Mohamed El Ghannouchi, the prime minister.
Mr Ghannouchi announced on television that he was taking over the authorities of the president because Mr Ben Ali was unable to discharge his functions temporarily.
He called for calm and promised to carry out political, social and economic reforms.
Less than an hour before the announcement was made, Mr Ben Ali had imposed a state of emergency across the country and dismissed his government as he tried to cling to power in the face of an escalating uprising demanding his removal.
As Tunis was gripped by protests on Friday, Mr Ben Ali, who has been rolling out concessions in recent days, said legislative elections would be held in six months.
On the streets of Tunis, the focal point of the unrest, which erupted a month ago over unemployment, had become Mr Ben Ali and his family, widely accused of corruption.
On Friday thousands of demonstrators, mostly middle class professional men and women, gathered, chanting: “Go, go, go … game over.” Police used teargas to disperse the crowds.
“We want an end to corruption and bribery,” said Mariam, who described herself as an unemployed television presenter. “The most important thing is that his [Ben Ali’s] family would stop ruling and stop stealing and that there should be elections.”
Much of the anger was directed against the family of Leila Trabelsi, the second wife of Mr Ben Ali, which controls lucrative sectors of the economy and are the focus of allegations of corruption.
Mr Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron grip for 23 years; opposition is stifled, and the country is an anomaly among pro-western Arab states for its extensive restrictions on freedom of expression.
In recent weeks, however, Tunisians have breached a barrier of fear, going out on the streets to demand jobs and freedom. The spark for the unrest in December was in the small inland town of Sidi Bouzid, where an unemployed graduate set himself aflame after police confiscated fruit and vegetables he sold without a permit.
Dozens of people have been killed in clashes between rioters and police, according to human rights groups. The official death toll is 23. Reports citing medical sources say that 12 more people were killed in disturbances on Thursday night, most of them in Tunis.
But, even as Mr Ben Ali announced a series of concessions, calls for his departure have become bolder.
On Thursday, the president promised that he would not seek to stay in power after his term has expired in 2014. He vowed to lift restrictions on freedom of expression and the internet and to bring down the price of basic foods.
“This regime is on its deathbed,” said Nabiha, a middle-aged teacher sheltering from the teargas in the entrance of the central banks. “It is accustomed to repression, and they have planted fear in us.”
As the large-scale demonstrations continued, Thomas Cook, the UK tour operator, said that it was evacuating nearly 4,000 of its customers from Tunisia.
“Although there has been no specific problems for our holidaymakers, their well-being is our primary concern so, as a precaution, we’ve taken the decision to bring them back to the UK as soon as we can,” Thomas Cook said in a statement.
The unrest and crackdown have worried western governments that had considered Tunisia’s authoritarian regime a stabilising force in north Africa.
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, told a conference in Qatar on Thursday that many Middle Eastern countries were “sinking into the sand” because they were failing to tackle resource crises and youth anger.