January 15, 2011

Tunisia Riots: AUTHORITARIAN President Ben Ali Flees As Chaos Hits Country!

The Telegraph UK
written by Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent
Friday January 14, 2011 at 8:04pm GMT

President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, the pro-American leader of Tunisia, fell to a wave of student protest on Friday, fleeing into exile from a country that had descended into blood-soaked chaos.

Mohammed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, announced he was taking over as acting president as the army moved in to seize control of the main airport in the capital Tunis.

The collapse of the 23-year dictatorship, the first ever collapse of an Arab leader to a "PEOPLE POWER" uprising, was met nervously by Tunisia's allies.

Mr Ben Ali was first thought to have flown to France but was reportedly refused permission to enter by President Nicolas Sarkozy. A plane carrying Mr Ben Ali landed early on Saturday morning in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah, a Saudi source said.

The US was keen to demonstrate it was open to a peaceful transistion in the North African state.

"We believe the Tunisian people have the right to choose their leaders, and will monitor this latest development closely," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

The White House will, however, be monitoring the stability of Tunisia's Arab neighbours.

Like Tunisia, many have been led for decades by repressive regimes that depend on the support of America and fear the discontent of young, underemployed populations.

But while the protests in Tunisia were led by an educated young population eager to expand their freedoms, in its neighbours much of the opposition is demanding the replacement of pro-western regimes with Islamic rule.

The final moments of Mr Ben Ali's long dominance of his country will be remembered for the drama on the streets as protests that have raged across the country for four weeks, finally reached the capital on Thursday.

Demonstrators ignored a curfew, and took no notice of a promise by Mr Ben Ali that night not to seek a sixth term of office in 2014. Instead of returning home, they took to the streets and the roof-tops, even of government buildings and the interior ministry, hurling stones at symbols of authority.

The police struck back. According to one report another 13 people were shot dead, bringing the total killed to almost 80 by one count by human rights groups. Tear gas floated over the city.

Television pictures showed plain clothes police firing rounds, and hauling individual students to the ground, where they would then be kicked and beaten by riot squads.

Thousands of British and other western tourists were told to stay indoors.

Many were evacuated. Holiday-makers described rampaging mobs breaking windows along the street outside their hotels.

"I was scared I was going to get hurt and I felt sorry for the people," said Cynthia Rigby, 55, from Liverpool. "It is horrible out there."

The initial trigger for the riots was unemployment. They started after a young graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight on December 17 in protest at having the vegetable barrow that was his only means of earning a living taken from him for not having a licence.

He died on January 5.

But students also objected to the heavy censorship of information, including the internet, and to the corruption in the president's family. A US dipomatic cable released by Wikileaks described their ally as a "police state".

Another described the luxurious beachside villa, complete with pet tiger, occupied by the president's son-in-law.

On Thursday night Mr Ben Ali also admitted that he had failed to listen to the people. But this only served to encourage the protesters.

He tried a final act of conciliation yesterday afternoon, sacking his government and saying he would call fresh elections. But not long after, state television said an "important announcement" was imminent, and Mr Ghannouchi appeared to address the nation.

"I call on Tunisians of all political persuasions and from all regions to demonstrate patriotism and unity," he said.

Earlier, a government statement had imposed a state of emergency. "The police and the army are authorised to fire on any suspect person who has not obeyed orders or fled without the possibility of being stopped," it said.

One opposition leader, Najib Chebbi, said change now had to be made permanent.

"This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it's the succession," he told French television. "It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose."

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