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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.