Tunisian protesters notch historic victory, but face uncertain future
Tunisian protesters are celebrating the ouster of President Ben Ali, and looking forward to establishing a democracy. But the corrupt and powerful system that Ben Ali built is still in place.
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country Friday, his rule toppled by a popular uprising that marked a historic victory for the people of Tunisia and a severe warning for other autocracies in the region.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Ben Ali’s exit brought an apparent end to the 23-year rule of one of the most repressive dictators in the region, and marks the first time in decades that a popular protest movement has overthrown an Arab autocrat.
“We feel overwhelming happiness and hope,” says Naziha Rejiba, a long-time human rights activists and independent journalist in Tunisia reached by phone. “But there are also questions about the future. The people of Tunisia brought down a dictator. But now we must work to build a democratic society in Tunisia.”
Corrupt, powerful system remains in place
The corrupt and powerful system Ben Ali built did not disappear when his jet left Tunis, making the goal of establishing democracy a lofty one.
Before he fled, Ben Ali announced that Tunisia would hold early legislative elections. But Tunisia’s opposition is atrophied from decades of being smothered by the regime.
The man who has assumed the presidency, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi,called on Tunisians to unite as he pledged to abide by the Constitution.
“As the president of the republic is unable to exercise his functions for the time being, I have assumed, starting now, the powers of the president,” he said in a televised speech. The government announced a state of emergency, and the military closed the country's airspace and enforced a curfew on the streets.
But Mr. Ghannouchi is himself a part of the system that protesters rallied to bring down, angered by a regime that enriched the rulers and those connected to them while leaving ordinary Tunisians with few jobs and no political freedom.
Obama: A 'brave and determined struggle'
The protests that ultimately ended Ben Ali’s rule began last month, when a young university graduate who had resorted to selling fruits and vegetables after failing to find a job lit himself on fire after police confiscated his produce cart.
His startling act of despair galvanized the masses, and protests spread from Tunisia’s interior, reaching the capital of Tunis this week. As many as 70 have been killed in the unrest as police shot at protesters, further enraging them.
President Obama issued a statement supporting the protesters and urging the government to hold free and fair elections soon.
“I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” he said in a statement released Friday. “The United States 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.”