Tunisian PM takes over as interim president as Ben Ali flees

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From: Rima Maktabi, CNN


Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) — Tunisia’s prime minister announced Friday that he is the interim president of his country’s embattled government, the latest development in a fast-moving story of unrest and public outrage in a tiny but significant corner of the Arab world. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced on Tunisian state TV that he has taken over the responsibilities of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — who had ruled the nation since 1987.

“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,” he 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.”
He pledged to respect the constitution and to carry out the political, economic and social reforms announced this week by Ben Ali.
The development came as a spokesman for Malta’s Foreign Affairs Ministry told CNN that Malta has allowed a plane carrying Ben Ali and headed toward France to use Malta’s airspace.

Ben Ali’s departure follows widespread outrage over poor living conditions and repression of rights in recent weeks. Protesters who have held daily demonstrations denounced corruption in the Ben Ali government and had urged that he step down. Earlier Friday, Ben Ali dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency, state TV reported. He also called for parliamentary elections to be held within six months. The moves came days after he dumped the interior minister and fired a couple of aides.
Ben Ali was reacting to instability ripping through the North African country. He announced concessions in a nationally televised address Thursday to meet some grievances.
Officials said the emergency declaration was ordered to protect Tunisians and their private property. People are not allowed on the street from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Early Friday evening, the streets in the capital, Tunis, were quiet. The airport in Tunis was under a lockdown, with the facility closed and ringed by soldiers. As part of the emergency, groups of three or more people are subject to arrest and, if they try to flee, can be fired on. Earlier Friday in the capital, police, wielding batons and firing tear gas, dispersed demonstrators, a show of force that aggravated what had been a peaceful gathering. Security forces were seen beating protesters, who attempted to flee. Fires were seen in the center of Tunis and downtown.

The incident underscored concerns among Tunisians and the in international community that security forces have been overreacting to peaceful gatherings of protesters.
Tunisia under Ben Ali has been a pro-Western state supportive of U.S. policy in the Middle East and in its efforts against terrorism. It has been a relatively stable and more prosperous country in what diplomats call “a rough neighborhood.” The education level in Tunisia is relatively high for the Arab world, and the country is closely linked to France and French culture. U.S. State Department officials said Friday the Obama administration was closely monitoring the situation and urging all parties to work together peacefully to resolve the political unrest.

“We are calling for calm,” one official said. “Obviously the people have expressed concerns, and it is the responsibility of the government to work toward responding to the concerns of its people. “Clearly there are divisions within society that need to be healed. … We call on parties to come together for political dialogue.” The United States, France, and Britain have issued travel advisories, warning against nonessential visits, and a tourism company announced the evacuation of 2,000 German vacationers. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the organization is monitoring the situation and has called for restraint, respect for freedom of expression and dialogue to resolve problems peacefully. Earlier, thousands congregated in front of the Interior Ministry and chanted slogans such as “Get out!” and “Freedom for Tunisia!”
Haykal Maki, a pro-opposition lawyer who was in the throng, said protesters were seeking “regime change,” the resignation of Ben Ali and lawsuits addressing the regime’s corruption.

Recent diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia obtained by WikiLeaks reveal growing disquiet with the government — and especially nepotism within the government.
WikiLeaks published a 2009 cable recounting a lavish dinner for the U.S. ambassador given by Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi, a prominent businessman.
The ambassador wrote in the cable: “After dinner, he served ice cream and frozen yogurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez (a high-end French resort), along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake.” The wave of demonstrations in Tunisia — in which people protested high unemployment, alleged corruption, rising prices and limitations on rights — was sparked by the suicide of an unemployed college graduate, a man who fatally torched himself in December after police confiscated his fruit cart, cutting off his source of income.

Ben Ali on Thursday had vowed to cut prices of basic foodstuffs, to lift censorship and to ensure police do not use live ammunition except in self-defense, and he implied that he would not run again for president. “Enough violence,” Ben Ali said after at least 21 people had died in days of riots.
Organized mainly by the country’s lawyers’ union and other unions, Friday’s demonstration took place under the watchful eyes of a contingent of riot police officers.
But their presence did not keep protesters from slamming the government and Ben Ali. “Public trial for the president’s family!” some shouted. “Yes to water and bread, but no to Ben Ali!”

link from: http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/01/14/tunisia.protests/index.html?hpt=T1&iref=BN1

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