Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian dictator, fled the country on January 14 amid mounting protests over high unemployment, escalating food prices, widespread government corruption and severe restrictions on people's freedoms.
January 14, 2011 - 1700 DST
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian dictator, fled the country on January 14 amid mounting protests over high unemployment, escalating food prices, widespread government corruption and severe restrictions on people's freedoms. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced on Tunisian state television the same day that he was taking over as "interim president" since Ben Ali could no longer function as president, alluding to his escape from the country in the manner of the Shah of Iran. This time, however, there is no Tunisian Imam Khomeini to lead the people.
"Based on constitution law No. 56, if the president of the republic cannot fulfill his duties, there will be an interim decision to move his executive powers to the prime minister," Ghannouchi said. "Considering the fact that at the current time he (Ben Ali) cannot fulfill his duties, I take over today, the powers of the president of the republic."
Not unsurprisngly, Ghannouchi pledged to respect the constitution and to carry out the political, economic and social reforms announced by Ben Ali before he fled the country. At least 21 people have so far been killed in police firing and despite a heavy clamp-down an curfew, people have not been cowed down.
The outrage was sparked following the suicide of an unemployed college graduate. He set himself on fire in December after police confiscated his fruit cart, cutting off his source of income. This proved to be the last straw for people already reeling under high employment coupled with nepotism involving Ben Ali's family and massive official corruption.
The protests had not started in the capital Tunis but after weeks of unrest, they finally arrived in the capital. Ben Ali's portraits, that typical for Middle East tyrannies, adorned every street corner, were torn down and set on fire. Ben Ali could read the mood of the people and decided to flee before he and his family members were captured, put on trial and executed.
Opposition spokesmen were clear in what they wanted: they were seeking "regime change," the resignation of Ben Ali and lawsuits addressing the regime's corruption.
Ben Ali had taken over from Habib Bourguiba whom he overthrew in 1987. Bourguiba had become senile and completely out of touch but Ben Ali's rise to power did not herald the dawn of freedom. It was unrealistic to expect any; Ben Ali was serving as Intelligence chief under Bourguiba and was the de facto ruler as the ailing and senile Bourguiba became increasingly out of touch with reality.
The chain of events moved rapidly once protests spread to the capital. On Thursday (January 13) Ben Ali announced some concessions to placate the people's anger but it seemed it was too little too late. On Friday (January 14) he announced dissolution of the government and declared a state of emergency. He also promised parliamentary elections within six months. He had already fired the interior minister for failing to restore order.
Ultimately, these proved futile and did not stop the demonstrations as people called for him to step down. Police brutality merely aggravated the already tense situation. Excessive use of force on unarmed and peaceful protesters simply intensified the hatred of the regime. Will Ghannouchi be able to contain the situation is anybody's guess. It cannot be ruled out that some general or colonel may step into Ben Ali's shoes.
Ben Ali was widely seen as a US and French puppet. That is where he headed--to France--after fleeing the country.