Tunisian Prime Minister Takes Charge as President Departs Amidst Riots

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 Mohammed Ghannouchi announced on Tunisian state TV that he has taken over the responsibilities of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – who ruled the nation since 1987. “Based on constitution law No. 56, if the president of the public 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.” (CNN) He pledged to respect the constitution and carry out the political, economic and social reforms announced this week by Ben Ali, who fled the country Friday.

In his speech to the country, Prime Minister Ghannouchi said that he called on “all sons and daughters of Tunisia to show the spirit of patriotism and unity in order to enable our country, which is dear to all of us, to overcome this difficult phase and restore its security and stability.” (New York Times)

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. But the French Foreign Ministry said Friday that it had received no request for Ben Ali to travel to France. Should such a request be made, France would issue a response in agreement with Tunisian constitutional authorities, the ministry said. Ben Ali’s immediate whereabouts were unclear after Ghannouchi said he was taking control of the government.

Ben Ali’s departure follows widespread outrage over poor living conditions and repression of rights in recent weeks. Protesters who held daily demonstrations denounced corruption in the Ben Ali government and had urged that he step down.

Earlier Friday, he 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 was ordered to protect Tunisians and their private property. People are not allowed on the street from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. 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.

The airport in Tunis was under lockdown Friday night, with the facility closed and ringed by soldiers. Reporters driving from the airport into the city were stopped several times by military manning checkpoints. A few gunshots could be heard at the airport, but otherwise the streets were quiet.

Earlier Friday in the capital, police, wielding batons and firing tear gas, dispersed demonstrations, 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 in the international community that security forces have been overreacting to peaceful gatherings of protests.

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. The White House said Tunisians should have the right to choose their own leader. It was monitoring the developments in Tunisia and called on authorities there to respect human rights. “We condemn the ongoing violence against civilians in Tunisia, and call on the Tunisian authorities to fulfill the important commitments… including respect for basic human rights and a process of much-needed political reform,” White House spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement. (Reuters)

It has been a relatively stable and more prosperous country in what diplomats call “a rough neighbourhood.” (CNN) The education level in Tunisia is relatively high for the Arab world, and the country is closely linked to France and French culture.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he stood side-by-side with the citizens of Tunisia, his country’s former protectorate. “Only dialogue can bring a democratic and lasting solution to the current crisis,” said Mr. Sarkozy in a statement. (BBC)

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.” (CNN)

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. Tour operator Thomas Cook said it was transporting 3,800 British, Irish and German vacationers from Tunisia as a precaution. Tourism is one of the nation’s key industries. (CBC) “The situation is unpredictable and there is the potential for violence to flare up, raising the risk of getting caught up in demonstrations,” the UK Foreign Office said in its latest travel advisory. (BBC)

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. (CNN)

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, Mohammed 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.” (CNN)

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. During the protests Friday morning, people shouted, “Bouazizi you are a hero,” referring to the college graduate. “The people of Tunisia have won.” (New York Times)

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-defence, 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. (CNN) In his speech, Ben Ali said that there was “no presidency for life” in Tunisia. But he did not intend to amend the constitution to remove the upper age limit for presidential candidates, which would have allowed him to stand for a further term in 2014. (BBC)

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!” (CNN)

Some demonstrators said they hoped that other Arab countries would follow their example despite the many differences between their country and many of those nations, where popular discontent is often expressed in the language of Islam. Zied Mhirsi, a 33-year-old doctor carried a sign that said, “Yes We Can,” a reference to President Barack Obama, above “#sidibouzid,” the name of an online Twitter feed that has provided a forum for rallying protesters. On the other side his sign said, “Thank you Al-Jazeera,” in reference to the Arab news network’s month of extensive coverage. (New York Times)

“Perhaps all the Arab governments are monitoring with eyes wide open what is happening in Tunisia,” columnist Abdelrahman al-Rashed wrote in regional newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. “Much of what prevents protests and civil disobedience is simply the psychological barrier,” he said in an article after Ben Ali had made sweeping concessions before he quit. “But the psychological barrier is broken.” (Reuters)

Opposition leader Najib Chebbi, one of Ben Ali’s most outspoken critics, described the events as a “regime change,” saying, “This is a cruicial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession,” he told France’s I-Tele TV. “It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.” (Reuters)

At least one American has been injured in the violence. Stephen Chmelewski, a 50-year-old English teacher who lives in the Lafayette neighbourhood of downtown Tunis, said he saw police “corralling” residents into certain streets and protesters setting debris fires, so he went out to take pictures of the events. He said he saw police snipers firing down on the crowds from rooftops, and one evidently struck him with a bullet that passed through his left leg and lodged in his right one. “I had protesters behind me and the police in front,” he said, “and then all of a sudden I got hit from behind by a bullet.” He was let out of the Charles Nicole hospital Thursday night, he said, because more wounded were flooding in with gunshot wounds from riots around Tunis. “All the emergency room beds were filled up,” he said. (New York Times)

Some Tunisians were unsatisfied by Ghannouchi taking charge. Fadhel Bel Taher, brother of a man who was killed in the protests, told al-Jazerra television that protests would soon resume. “Tomorrow we will be back in the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until… the regime is gone,” he said. (Reuters)

A U.S. lobbying and communications firm has dropped the government of Tunisia as a client, saying it was troubled by the country’s “approach to important civil rights and civil liberties issues.” (Washington Post) The move by Washington Media Group is somewhat unusual in the world of foreign lobbying and consulting firms, many of which specialize in representing often unsavory regimes and despots. Documents filed with the Justice Department show that Washington Media Group signed a $420,000 annual contract last May to be a consultant for Tunisia, which has paid $315,000 so far. The firm formally severed its ties in a letter dated Jan. 6, according to the records, which are required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. “It was clear to us the Tunisian government was not going to implement the recommendations and work product we provided,” said Washington Media Group president Gregory L. Vistica, a former journalist for the Washington Post and other news outlets. “We felt on principle that we could not work for a government who was shooting its own citizens and violating their civil rights with such abuse.” (Washington Post)

The information in this article is a combination of articles from CNN, BBC, New York Times, Reuters, and The Washington Post.

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