Tunisia swore in a new interim president Saturday – the second change of power
in this North African nation in less than 24 hours – and grappled with looting,
deadly prison riots and chaos in the streets after protests forced the country’s
leader to flee.
RELATED:‘Tunisian Jews unaffected by upheaval’Obama condemns violence used against Tunisian protestersTunisian president declares state of emergencyAnalysis: A warning to Arab dictators
Amid the political instability, looters emptied shops and
torched the capital’s main train station, and soldiers traded fire with
assailants in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis. At least 42 people were
killed Saturday in a prison fire in a resort town, and the director of another
prison let 1,000 inmates flee after a deadly rebellion.
president – Fouad Mebazaa, former president of the lower house of parliament –
ordered the creation of a unity government that could include the opposition,
which had been frozen out and ignored under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s
23 years of autocratic rule.
Ben Ali abruptly fled the country Friday for
Saudi Arabia following a month of street protests over corruption, a lack of
jobs and clampdowns on civil liberties. Yet while the protests were mostly
peaceful, the first day after his departure was chaotic – and deadly.
leadership changes came at a dizzying speed. After Ben Ali left, his longtime
ally, Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannouchi, stepped in briefly with a vague
assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return.
But on Saturday, Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the
president’s departure permanent and gave lawmaker Mebazaa 60 days in which to
organize new elections.
Hours later, Mebazaa was sworn in.
first televised address, he said he had asked the premier to form a “national
unity government in the country’s best interests” in which all political parties
would be consulted “without exception nor exclusion.”
The move was one of
reconciliation, but it was not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaa, who has been part of Tunisia’s ruling class for decades, would go to
invite the opposition into the government.
It was also unclear who would
emerge as the top political leaders in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia: The autocratic
leader has utterly dominated politics for decades, placing his allies in power
and sending opponents to jail or into exile.Twenty Israelis escape Gerba safely
Israel, according to Foreign
Ministry officials, passed on messages to Tunis calling on the country to ensure
that no harm comes to the country’s tiny Jewish community, numbering between
2,000 – 3,000 people, mostly in Tunis and on the island of Gerba.
diplomatic source said Israel succeeded, through the help of a third country –
believed to be Germany – in safely getting a group of 20 Israelis who were
touring Gerba out of the country.
Israel, according to officials in
Jerusalem, was carefully monitoring the situation there.
sources expressed some concern that the populist nature of the developments
could lead to a rise of Islamic radicalism, and that the developments there
could lead to similar popular uprisings in other regional states, including
Egypt and Jordan, that could bring in its wake a great deal of regional
volatility and insecurity.
In 1996, following the Oslo accords, Israel
and Tunisia opened interest sections in each other’s countries, but they were
closed soon after the outbreak of the second intifada in September, 2000. Israel
has not had any representative in Tunisia for some six years.Obama: "Respect human rights"
President Barack Obama led world leaders in condemning the violence used against
protesters in Tunisia, urging the sides to remain calm and the government to
move toward an open and democratic system.
Obama called on Tunisian
authorities “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the
near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian
He said the US “stands with the entire international community
in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal
rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the
Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.
“I applaud the
courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” he said. “I have no doubt that
Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian
people.”Prison fire kills 42 in Monastir
On the streets, the unrest was frightening.
A fire at a
prison in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed 42 people, coroner
Tarek Mghirbi said on Saturday. The cause of the fire was not immediately
In Mahdia, further down the coast, there was a rebellion inside a
prison holding an estimated 1,000 prisoners, with inmates setting fire to their
mattresses. Soldiers opened fire and five inmates were killed, a top local
To avoid further bloodshed, the director of the prison let
the inmates flee, the official said, asking not to be identified because of
Security forces and unidentified assailants had a
shootout Saturday in front of the Interior Ministry that left two bodies on the
ground. It was not clear whether they were dead, or even who they
Sporadic gunfire echoed around the capital on Saturday. Black smoke
billowed over a giant supermarket as looters torched and emptied it. An
Associated Press photographer saw soldiers fire warning shots and try to stop
looters from sacking the supermarket in Ariana, north of the capital; to no
avail. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.
station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods
on the capital’s outskirts, describing attacks against their homes by
“This isn’t good at all. I’m very afraid for
the kids and myself,” said Lilia Ben Romdhan, a mother of three in outer Tunis.
“If [Ben Ali] had stayed in the country, it would be better.”
Fdela, selling oranges and bananas in the neighborhood, said he wants democracy
but was not sure that would happen.
He also feared food shortages, with
so many stores closed and others looted.
“God willing, a real man will
take over,” he said.
Saudi King Abdullah’s palace confirmed Saturday that
the ousted president and some family members had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying
the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for “peace and security to return to the
people of Tunisia.”
It did not give Ben Ali’s exact whereabouts, but a
source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 500
kilometers south of Jeddah. The source said Ben Ali had been taken there to
avoid sparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians living in the larger,
seaside city of Jeddah. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the
sensitivity of the matter.
The French government, meanwhile, said other
members of Ben Ali’s family were “not welcome” in the former colonial
Spokesman Francois Baroin told France-Info radio that Ben Ali’s
family “have not shown a desire to stay on French soil, and are going to leave.”
He didn’t specify which family members are currently in France.
downfall sent a warning to other autocratic leaders across the Arab world, the
more so because he did not seem especially vulnerable until very recently and
managed his country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern
He turned Tunisia into a beach haven for European tourists,
helping create an area of stability in volatile North Africa. There was a lack
of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, but a better quality of life
for many than in neighboring countries such as Algeria and Libya.
won frequent praise from abroad for presiding over reforms to make the economy
more competitive and attract business.
Growth last year was at 3.1
Unemployment, however, was officially 14 percent, but believed
to be far higher among the young. Despair among job-seeking young graduates was
The riots started after an educated but jobless 26-year-old
committed suicide in mid-December when police confiscated the fruits and
vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve,
sparked copycat suicides and focused generalized anger against the regime into a
widespread revolt.Arab world celebrates uprising
Arabs across the region celebrated news of the
Tunisian uprising on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Thousands of tweets
congratulating the Tunisian people flooded the Internet, and many people changed
their profile pictures to Tunisian flags.
Egyptian activists opposed to
President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade regime looked to the events in Tunisia
About 50 gathered outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo to
celebrate, chanting “Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too!” Ben
Ali, 74, came to power in a bloodless palace coup in 1987. He took over from a
man formally called President-for-Life – Habib Bourguiba, the founder of
modernday Tunisia, who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after
independence from France in 1956.
Ben Ali consistently won elections with
questionable tallies: In 2009, he was reelected for a fifth five-year term with
89% of the vote.
US diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks
called Tunisia a “police state” and described the widespread corruption there,
saying Ben Ali had lost touch with his people.
Social networks like
Facebook helped spread the comments – to the delight of ordinary Tunisians, who
had complained about the same issues for years.
reopened Saturday, but some flights were canceled and others left with delays.
Thousands of tourists were still being evacuated from the Mediterranean nation
known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins.
has in recent years become a popular sun-and-sand destination for Europeans
looking to escape wintry weather, and the uprising there caught tour operators
by surprise after a sustained period of stability.
companies rushed Saturday to retrieve thousands of tourists on package tours to
Tour companies in Britain and Germany started the airlift
process, sending planes to Tunisia to bring back tourists anxious to return
home. The French national travel agency association, CETO, said French tour
operators planned to evacuate tourists shortly, and urged people planning trips
to Tunisia in the next few days to cancel their plans and change their
More than 1,000 tourists arrived back in Britain on Saturday
after being evacuated from Tunisia, with several hundred more expected to arrive
on special flights Sunday.
“It was quite scary, but I was never in fear
for my life,” said Mary Grist, a retiree who arrived at Manchester Airport from
Tunisia on Saturday. “What we have seen is the aftermath – burned-out petrol
stations and the army lining the streets with their guns.”
She said she
and others who entered Tunisia on Wednesday should have been told about the
spreading unrest and given the option of canceling their trip then.
think we should have been warned, but they didn’t [do that]. So here we are, two
and a half days later, back home,” she said.
Others described a
frightening atmosphere as gasoline stations were burned, store windows were
smashed and armed soldiers patrolled the streets.
German companies were
scrambling to repatriate more than 5,000 tourists in Tunisia. Tour operator
Thomas Cook’s German subsidiary successfully brought back 200 German tourists
from Tunisia Friday, but 1,800 were still in the country, with many scheduled to
be flown out Saturday.
Rewe Group said Saturday it was starting to bring
back its 2,100 clients in Tunisia, and tour operator TUI AG also said Saturday
it was sending planes to bring 1,000 clients back to Germany.
Foreign Office said another 150 to 200 Britons were known to be traveling
independently in Tunisia, and had registered with the embassy
there.Hilary Leila Krieger and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this