Tunisia grapples with looting, deadly riots

Twenty touring Israelis get out safely; Jerusalem ‘carefully monitoring’ situation; Obama calls for ‘free and fair elections.’

Tunisia Freedom 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Tunisia Freedom 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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.
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.
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The interim 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.
The 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.
In his 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.
One 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.
Government 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"
US 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 people.”
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 clear.
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 official said.
To avoid further bloodshed, the director of the prison let the inmates flee, the official said, asking not to be identified because of security concerns.
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 were.
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.
Public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods on the capital’s outskirts, describing attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants.
“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.”
Kamel 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 ruler.
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.
Ben Ali’s 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 nations.
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.
Ben Ali 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 percent.
Unemployment, however, was officially 14 percent, but believed to be far higher among the young. Despair among job-seeking young graduates was palpable.
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 with hope.
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.
Tunisian airspace 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.
Tunisia 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.
European travel companies rushed Saturday to retrieve thousands of tourists on package tours to Tunisia.
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 tickets.
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.
“I 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.
Britain’s 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 report.