A startling power shift in restive Tunisia inched forward Saturday as the country’s parliament speaker assumed the interim presidency and the country’s former longtime leader took refuge with his family in Saudi Arabia.
In a change of government driven by days of angry street protests, Tunisian state TV reported that Fouad Mebazaa was sworn in as the country’s acting leader and presidential elections will be held in 60 days.
Meanwhile, an opposition leader told CNN that opposition figures were meeting with the caretaker prime minister to discuss formation of a unity government.
Mebazaa’s temporary assumption of the presidency corresponds to an article in Tunisia’s constitution that says power will be transferred to the parliament speaker when the president resigns, dies or is unable to perform his responsibilities.
“I swear to God that I will preserve the stability of the nation and the peace of the Earth and I will respect the country’s constitution and I will pursue the best interest of the nation and I will take care of it completely,” Mebazaa said in a televised address.
“Citizens, sons and daughters of our country of Tunis in this important and urgent moment in the history of our beloved country, I appeal to all of you of various political parties, and nationalist organizations, and all civil society organizations to fight for the national interest and to respect the army’s command and the national security in security matters, and to preserve private and public property and to bring the return of peace and security in the hearts of the citizens.”
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former president with a reputation for ruthlessness and corruption, fled to Jeddah after ruling his country since 1987, and was welcomed by the Saudi Arabian king.
“The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces that it stands fully by the Tunisian people, wishing, by God will, its people will stand solid to overcome this difficult phase in its history,” the Saudi royal court said in a statement.
As the political situation remained fluid, the army appears to have clamped down and established a strong presence on the streets in the cities of Tunisia — long a relatively stable and prosperous country in what diplomats call “a rough neighborhood.”
There were no reported street protests in the capital, Tunis, on Saturday and people were venturing outside in search of groceries after the overnight curfew ended.
But reports of rioting and looting in the country and the burning of Tunis’ main train station have surfaced. Security forces also have been spotted rounding up and roughing up people.
At least 42 people died when a fire swept through a prison in the eastern Tunisian city of Monastir, Dr. Ali Chadley of the University Hospital of Monastir told CNN. It was not immediately cleared what sparked the fire.
The wave of rallies in the North African nation was sparked by the suicide of an unemployed college graduate, who torched himself last month after police confiscated his fruit cart, cutting off his source of income.
Their protests have been organized and supported through online networks centered on Twitter and Facebook.
Under Ben Ali, Tunisia was a pro-Western state supportive of U.S. policy in the Middle East and in its efforts against terrorism.
A widespread grass-roots outrage has been bubbling over poor living conditions, high unemployment, government corruption and repression.
Protesters had called for Ben Ali to step down and held daily demonstrations denouncing his government.
The dramatic change in government began on a turbulent Friday, when police fired tear gas and dispersed demonstrators in the capital — a show of force that aggravated what had been a peaceful gathering.
Ben Ali dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency.
Then, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced that he had taken over the responsibilities of the president because Ben Ali couldn’t perform his duties.
Ghannouchi appealed for calm, and pledged to respect the constitution and carry out political, economic and social reforms.
Ghannouchi asked residents to cooperate with the army, which was ordered to take charge of the streets following a state-of-emergency declaration.
As Ghannouchi took the helm, protests erupted in Kasserine as Tunisians objected to his power move.
Trying to calm widespread discontent with Ben Ali’s government, the prime minister told Arabic-language Al-Jazeera TV that “certain measures” had been taken against “corrupt families,” referring to business owners close to the president.
The president’s return to Tunisia “is impossible,” Ghannouchi said.
The parliament speaker then assumed the interim presidency under constitutional law and Ghannouchi was named the prime minister in what is now a caretaker government.
Abdel Latif Abid, a human rights lawyer and one of the founders of an opposition party, told CNN that the opposition leaders were meeting with Ghannouchi to discuss the formation of a unity government.
The unity government would prepare for presidential elections after which a new government is formed and prepares for parliamentary elections.
Amnesty International spokesman Claudio Cordone told CNN that 55 people have been killed over the past several weeks of demonstrations. The former president had put the number at 21 before his departure.
“We hope that the army will match its reputation for being more professional and less trigger-happy than the security forces that have been responsible for much of the violence over the last several weeks,” Cordone said.
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council on Saturday “expressed its solidarity” with Tunisians and deplored the “excessive use of force against demonstrators.”
It also urged “the political stakeholders and the Tunisian people to work together, in unity, consensus and respect for legality, towards a peaceful and democratic transition, which will allow the Tunisian people to freely choose their leaders through free, open, democratic and transparent elections.”
U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday condemned “the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia” and lauded “the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. ”
“I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government 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.
“I have no doubt that Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.”
Recent diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia obtained by WikiLeaks revealed growing discontent, especially over 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, a prominent businessman. The dinner featured ice cream and frozen yogurt flown in from Saint Tropez, the diplomat said.
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