Unrest continued to sweep through Tunisia Saturday as the country witnessed its second transfer of power in less than 24 hours. Looters and assailants traded fire with soldiers in the capital of Tunis and deadly riots broke out in two prisons. At least 42 people were reported killed Saturday.
After weeks of street protests over economic hardships and corruption drove longtime Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia on Friday, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi briefly assumed power. On Saturday Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared Ben Ali’s departure permanent, and said interim president Fouad Mebazaa, former president of the lower house of parliament, has 60 days to organize new elections.
The Obama administration had considered Ben Ali an ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and regional Islamic extremist groups. Nevertheless, State Department officials warned in cables recently released by WikiLeaks that the Tunisian strongman had lost touch with his own people, tolerating a level of corruption and repression that made Tunisia a virtual “police state.” President Barack Obama has applauded the courage of the protesters, but urged all sides to use restraint and avoid further violence.
Ben Ali’s fall came as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a trip to the region this week, warned governments to expand political and social freedoms or risk similar unrest. The tumult in Tunisia could amplify her message.
The spectacle of strongman Ben Ali being forced from power by street demonstrations is likely to unsettle the crowns on the heads of Arab autocrats, especially coming after the “green movement” paralyzed the Iranian government for months following the fraudulent 2009 elections there. As was the case in Iran, social networks such as Facebook helped fan the flames of discontent and demonstrations in Tunisia. Since Tunisia erupted, smaller protests by similarly disaffected youth have recently been reported in Algeria, Jordan and Egypt. In Cairo, a crowd of 50 demonstrators gathered outside the Tunisian Embassy on Saturday, drawing hope for their own opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule, and chanting “Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too!”