Saudi Arabia has said that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president for more than 23 years, and his family are in the kindgom, a day after they fled a mass uprising in their country.
The departure came as a dramatic climax to weeks of violent protests against Ben Ali’s rule in the north African nation and as the army struggled to tackle groups marauding through Tunis, the capital, setting fire to buildings and attacking people and property.
The unrest continued on Saturday even as Tunisia’s Constitutional Court announced that the speaker of parliament, or Chamber of Deputies, Fouad Mebazaa, had been appointed the country’s interim president.
Mebazaa has up to 60 days to organise new presidential elections under the Tunisian constitution.
Ben Ali had delegated Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, to act as head of state before leaving the country.
The Constitutional Council, Tunisia’s highest legal authority on constitutional issues, also announced that the departure of Ben Ali was permanent.
Fethi Abdennadher, the council’s president, said Ben Ali had left power for good.
Earlier, a statement released by Saudi monarchy said the decision to welcome Ben Ali was based on appreciation of the “exceptional circumstances” in Tunisia.
“Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country… the Saudi government has welcomed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom,” the statement said.
Al Jazeera’s special correspondent in Tunisia said that things were extremely quiet on Saturday morning as people went about their daily business.
“Last night the curfew was in place and the army was telling the people that it was there to protect them,” she said.
Our correspondent said the feeling there was that “people had indeed woken up to a new era, after 23 years of Ben Ali’s rule”.
“There is a lot of apprehension, but at the same time total euphoria about the next step towards the democracy that they fought for so much.”
Unwelcome in France
Earlier on Friday, after it was confirmed that Ben Ali had fled Tunis, rumours flew regarding the whereabouts of the president and his family. Sources speculated they were flying to Malta, Libya, France or elsewhere.
Eventually, it appeared Ben Ali’s aircraft had been en route to Paris, but Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from the French capital, said that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, had refused to welcome Ben Ali following crisis negotiations with his prime minister.
Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia since coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1987, fled amid violent demonstrations and protesters who rejected his last-minute raft of concessions.
Members of Ben Ali’s family, reportedly including some of his in-laws, were arrested as they tried to leave the country.
The unrest in the country began on December 17, after a 26-year-old unemployed man 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.
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Mohammed Ghannouchi, his prime minister, quickly announced on Friday that he would act as president.
“Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the [presidential] duties,” Ghannouchi said in a statement broadcast on state television.
In an interview later with Al Jazeera, he said that because the current circumstances did not allow for Ben Ali’s return to Tunisia, he would act as the president until elections could be held.
Ghannouchi said his actions were in line with Article 56 of the constitution, though observers pointed out that the line of succession should legally pass first to the speaker of parliament.
Noureddine Miladi, a sociology and media lecturer of Tunisian origin, told Al Jazeera that Ghannouchi’s act was unconstitutional.
“It is manipulation of the constitution. It has been argued by the likes of Iyad bin Ashur, one of the top lawyers in Tunisia. He argues that the head of parliament is the only legitimate party able to form a legitimate [caretaker] government, for about 45 days and then [they must] call for elections,” Miladi said.
“He [the speaker of the parliament] is supposed to oversee the success of the election. Ghannouchi is part of the same corrupt political elite as Ben Ali. There is nothing new in what happened today, it is a different twist of the game.”
Tensions remained high despite Ben Ali’s exit, with protesters reported to be ransacking government buildings in the capital, Tunis, and throughout other provinces. Police have also been accused of participating in looting, and citizens have made appeals for the protection of their property.
Ben Ali’s apparent downfall has not calmed all the protesters; there were reports of continued protests outside the interior ministry on Friday night calling for Ghannouchi’s immediate resignation.
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 address problems of inflation and unemployment “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 Constitutional Democratic Rally 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.
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 demanding Ben Ali’s resignation, even after the president had delivered a speech the night before offering major concessions.
Witnesses said police used batons to disperse the crowd, but the protesters insisted they would not leave until Ben Ali stepped down.
Sabavala said 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.”
Expressions of discontent
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. At least one journalist, from CNN, reported on Twitter on Friday night that his flight had been allowed to land and he had arrived at his hotel in Tunis.
Hundreds of protesters gathered on Friday, demanding Ben Ali’s resignation
Air France, the main international airline into and out of Tunisia, announced that it had ceased flights to Tunisia following the army’s 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.
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 co-operation 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.”