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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.

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Ben Ali's concessions too little, too late

Events unfolded quickly Friday leading up to Ben Ali’s departure. As protests escalated in the capital Thursday, he made a desperate attempt at popular appeasement, giving a speech in which he said he would not run for reelection in 2014. He also said police would not fire on protesters, and pledged to lift strict Internet and press censorship, allow political freedom, and slash food prices.

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But it was not enough, and thousands of protesters filled the streets of Tunis on Friday to demand his resignation. Police fought them with tear gas and brutally beat them, according to news reports. In the afternoon, the president announced he had fired his cabinet and would hold early elections in six months. But it was too late.

By evening, it was reported that he had left Tunisia. Al Arabiya reported that his plane has landed in Saudi Arabia.

How Tunisia's neighbors see it

Tunisia’s neighboring governments are likely to be watching Tunisia in apprehension, while regional populations watch with envy. Other Arab nations with aging leaders also have large, restless youth populations frustrated with the lack of economic opportunities and tired of political repression.

Riots in Algeria and unrest in Jordan this month underlined the concerns. Few predict a domino effect in the region, however – though no one would have predicted a popular uprising in Tunisia two months ago.

“We will be an example for the other Arab countries,” says Ms. Rejiba, who praised Tunisia’s youths for fueling the protests. “Little by little, in four weeks, a fire grew. It came about through the power of the youth,” she said. “They don’t know political parties, they don’t know the past, and they were afraid for the future.”

While she was exhilarated by Ben Ali’s exit, she pointed out that the prime minister was not a member of the opposition, and much work remained.

Tunisia has been a US ally on counterterrorism, but Ben Ali has strongly resisted any pressure on democratic reform. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that Friday’s events were a “moment of significant transition in Tunisia,” and called on the government to respect the rights of assembly and expression.

“We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social, and political reforms, and call for free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people,” she said.

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