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Tunisia's embattled president surrenders power

Christophe Ena / AP

A demonstrator throws a stone at police during clashes in Tunis, Friday, Jan. 14. Tunisia's president declared a state of emergency and announced that he would fire his government as violent protests escalated Friday, with gunfire echoing in the North African country's usually calm capital and police lobbing tear gas at protesters.

NBC News, msnbc.com staff and news services

UPDATE: TUNIS, Tunisia -- Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said late Friday in a televised address that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has surrendered power and left Tunis.

Ghannouchi said that he would serve as interim president and will meet representatives of political parties on Saturday to form a government. "Tomorrow will be a decisive day," Ghannouchi told a private Tunisian television station in a telephone interview, Reuters reported. 

Al Arabiya said a six-member leadership council would be formed to rule the country until elections. The council will be led by the head of Parliament and will include the defense minister.

Ben Ali had reportedly fled to Malta and was traveling under Libyan protection, Reuters reported. His exact whereabouts were unclear

Video: Ben Ali steps down amid protests

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to give Ben Ali permission to enter France, French media reported, citing government sources.  Some members of his family have arrived in the country, the newspaper Le Monde reported. France controlled Tunisia as a protectorate until 1956.

Later, Al Jazeera television reported Ben Ali was flying to the Gulf.

The shakeup was certain to have repercussions in the Arab world and beyond — as a sign that massive public outrage could bring down a leader as entrenched and powerful as Ben Ali.

He had tried vainly to hold onto power amid riots, declaring a state of emergency, dissolving the government and promising new legislative elections within six months. A day earlier, he slashed prices on key foods such as sugar, bread and milk.

In other developments, Ben Ali's son-in-law, Sakher Materi, a prominent businessman, was in Dubai despite TV reports that he was under arrest in Tunis, an aide told Reuters.

"He has been in Dubai since midday today," the aide, who did not want to be named, told Reuters after he said he telephoned Materi to check his whereabouts.

Tunisia's private Nessma television station reported that Materi had been arrested along with several relatives.

Materi's wealth and business interests have been the focus of suspicion and anger from some Ben Ali opponents, who have accused the former president of nepotism.

President Barack Obama condemned the violence against protesters. He called on the Tunisian government to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections in the future.

Slideshow: State of emergency in Tunisia

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Gunfire in the capital
Earlier, gunfire was heard in the center of the Tunisian capital, as well as the popping of tear gas pistols as police fired on protesters. Police have repeatedly fired on crowds during nearly a month of riots.

Tunisia's official news agency said that Ben Ali had declared a state of emergency as riots escalated in his North African nation.

The government also imposed an overnight curfew and banned gatherings of more than three people state television reported. "Arms will be used" if Tunisians refuse to heed the orders, the state media reports said.

Ben Ali announced earlier in the day that he would dismiss his government and call new legislative elections after thousands of protesters marched through the capital to demand his ouster.

Protesters mobbed the capital of Tunis on Friday, fueled by pent-up anger at high unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt. Marching through the city, they demanded Ben Ali's resignation and some even climbed onto the roof of the Interior Ministry — a symbol of his repressive regime, which has been criticized as having enriched Ben Ali's family.

Many shouted "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!" Another poster read "We won't forget," a reference to the rioters killed, many by police bullets.

Ben Ali promised that the early elections would take place within six months, the official TAP news agency reported. He made no reference, however, to any resignation of his own.

Helmeted police were seen kicking and clubbing unarmed protesters — one of whom cowered on the ground, covering his face. A few youths were spotted throwing stones at police.

Protesters shout slogans during a protest against Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali , in Tunis, Tunisia, on Friday.

'The people rose up'
The demonstrators were of all ages and from all walks of life.

"A month ago, we didn't believe this uprising was possible," said Beya Mannai, a geology professor at the University of Tunis. "But the people rose up."

The new unrest came just a day after Ben Ali tried to quell the uproar by going on television to promise lower food prices and new freedoms for Tunisians.


 

Ben Ali, 74, had maintained an iron grip on Tunisia since grabbing power in 1987 in a bloodless coup, repressing any challenges. He had locked up many opposition figures, clamped down on dissent and kept tight control over the media but had not been able to resolve the country's rising unemployment, officially at nearly 14 percent, but higher for educated youths.

The unrest began 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, outright revolt.

The official death toll in the riots is 23, but opposition leaders put the figure at three times that, and medical workers on Friday reported another 13 new deaths and over 50 injuries from late Thursday alone. Police have repeatedly fired on crowds with bullets.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have calledTunisia a "police state" and described the corruption there, and social networks like Facebook have helped spread the comments. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained for years felt vindicated to see the U.S. diplomatic cables.

Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images

Tunisian demonstors gather in front of the interior ministry in Tunis demanding President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign on Friday. Thousands of protesters demanded President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resign in marches across the country on January 14, emboldened by his dramatic pledge to step down in 2014 in a bid to quell weeks of unrest. "No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues," hundreds shouted in a march down the main boulevard in central Tunis while thousands more took to the streets in other towns shouting "Ben Ali Out!".

Foundations 'sinking into the sand'
In a speech on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned countries across the Middle East to shake up corrupt institutions and reinvigorate stagnant political systems or risk losing the future to Islamic militants.

Wrapping up a four-nation tour of U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf with unusually blunt remarks to a regional development conference in the Qatari capital of Doha, Clinton said economic and political space must be opened up for the Arab world's exploding youth population, women and minorities.

Without that, respect for human rights, improved business climates and an end to pervasive corruption, she said young people and others will increasingly turn to radicalism and violence that will bleed outside the region, threatening not only Middle Eastern stability and security but the rest of the world.

"In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," she told officials at the Forum for the Future conference. "The new and dynamic Middle East ... needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere."

Clinton made her comments after visiting the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Qatar. During her trip, civil unrest continued unabated in Tunisia and Algeria, Egypt remained tense after disputed elections and a political crisis hit Lebanon, underscoring what Clinton said where deep concerns about trends in the Middle East.

"While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order," she said. She appealed for leaders to heed calls to rein in rampant graft and offer all of their people a better way of life.

"Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever," Clinton said. "If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum."

"Extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there appealing for allegiance and competing for influence," she said. "This is a critical moment and this is a test of leadership for all of us."

WikiLeaks: 'Chorus of complaints is rising'
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeakshave described the corruption in Tunisia, and social networks like Facebook have helped spread the comments. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained of corruption for years felt vindicated to see the U.S. cables.

Many Tunisians respect Ben Ali, but many also have grievances with him and members of his family, some of whom have prominent roles in business and public life.

The U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the time, Robert Godec, wrote about the president in a July 2009 cable published by the WikiLeaks website: "He and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people."

"Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising," the cable said.

Tunisia's style of government, say some analysts, sits uneasily with the growing sophistication of its people. Tunisia has a large middle class, people are well-educated, and many have close ties to Europe.

"In Tunisia, the educated middle class is exasperated. Hence the involvement of lawyers and academics in the protests," said Benjamin Stora, a leading French historian of the Maghreb region that includes Tunisia. "This (the wave of unrest) looks like a real
social movement to try to unlock the system."

And social media has played an impotant role: For example, Facebook users make up 18.6 percent of the population, according to Internet marketing consultancy socialbakers, a higher penetration than in Germany.

"The whole story would not have been the same without Facebook and Twitter and other new media," said Ahmed Mansoor, a UAE-based rights activist and blogger. "It played a vital role in bringing what's going on there [in Tunisia] to the world."

'Clearly something going on'
The unprecedented riots that have shaken Tunisia have been closely followed on regional satellite television channels and the Internet across the Middle East where high unemployment, bulging young populations, sky-rocketing inflation and a widening gap between rich and poor are increasingly of concern.

"There is a danger in ... getting a bit too comfortable with the 'Arab state will muddle through' argument," said Stephen Cook of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in a blog this week. "It may not be the last days of Ben Ali or (Egypt's President Hosni) Mubarak or any other Middle Eastern strongman.

"But there is clearly something going on in the region."

"This could happen anywhere," said Imane, a restaurant owner in Egypt who did not want to give her full name. "The satellite and Internet images we can see nowadays mean people who would normally be subdued can now see others getting what they want."
While in recent decades democracy has supplanted despotism in regions once plagued by dictators, governments in the Arab world are almost uniformly autocratic and heavily policed.

Yet some think the concessions wrung from Ben Ali, as well as efforts in Algeria to appease anger over price increases, have punctured the fear factor that has long kept discontent in check across the region.

"Perhaps all the Arab governments are monitoring with eyes wide open what is happening in Tunisia and Algeria," columnist Abdelrahman al-Rashed wrote in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

"Much of what prevents protest and civil disobedience is simply the psychological barrier," he said. "Tunisia's president has promised all he can to stop the trouble and Algeria reversed price decisions, but the psychological barrier is broken."

Travel alerts
In Tunisia, the demonstrations started in mid-December after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit.

The riots this week reached Tunis, the capital of this North African tourist haven on the Mediterranean.
The unrest was taking a heavy toll on the key tourism industry there, which is known for its wide sandy beaches, desert landscape, ancient ruins and bustling bazaars.

British tour operator Thomas Cook said it was asking its roughly 3,800 British, Irish, and German customers in Tunisia to leave the country, while some 200 Dutch tourists were repatriated Thursday night via a chartered flight.

U.S. and European governments have issued a series of travel alerts warning citizens away from nonessential travel to Tunisia.
The unrest was having diplomatic consequences as well.

Tunisia's ambassador to the U.N. cultural and educational agency resigned amid the deadly riots. Mezri Haddad, ambassador to Paris-based UNESCO, said on France's BFM television Friday, "I am resigning today."

He said he is resigning because he doesn't want to contribute to something that "is the opposite of my convictions and my conscience."