Tunisia’s 75-year old president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who seized control of the small Mediterranean country in 1987, has fled to Saudi Arabia after massive street demonstrations against his rule. His flight marked the first time that massive street demonstrations had overthrown an Arab leader.
Saudi Arabia has said that Mr. Ben Ali and his family are in the Kingdom, a day after they fled Tunis. Media sources had speculated that France would be his ultimate destination, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently rejected the ousted president’s last-minute requests for asylum.
The departure came as a dramatic climax to weeks of violent protests against Ben Ali’s rule in the north African nation and as the army struggled to confront groups of young men roving through Tunis, setting fire to buildings, both public and private, and pillaging local businesses.
The unrest continued on Saturday even as Tunisia’s Constitutional Court announced that the speaker of parliament, or Chamber of Deputies, Fouad Mebazaa, had been appointed the country’s interim president. Mebazaa has up to 60 days to organize new presidential elections, per Tunisia’s constitution.
Ben Ali had delegated Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, to act as head of state before leaving the country, and the latter had appeared on state television to announce his stewardship over an interim government.
The Constitutional Council, Tunisia’s highest legal authority on constitutional issues, also announced that the departure of Ben Ali was permanent.
Earlier, a statement released by Saudi monarchy said the decision to welcome Ben Ali was based on appreciation of the “exceptional circumstances” in Tunisia.
“Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country… the Saudi government has welcomed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom,” the statement said.
The unrest in the country began on December 17, after a 26-year-old unemployed graduate set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide. Mohammed Bousazizi’s act of desperation set off the public’s growing frustration with rising inflation and unemployment, and prompted a wave of protests across the country.
A statement from president Obama’s office on Saturday announced, “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.”
The role of media in the uprising is significant, but debatable, with many observers claiming that social networking sites like facebook and twitter aided in protestors’ ability to coordinate and publicize their activities. Many credited al-Jazeera’s relentless, daily coverage of the unfolding unrest with encouraging the overthrow.
Also, recent Wikileaks disclosures of US diplomatic cables exposed American misgivings about Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule and the corruption of his family and inner circle – which led some analysts to believe heartened Tunisian dissidents.
In a final bid to placate the protesters, Mr. Ben Ali had already pledged to hold parliamentary elections in six months. Those elections are now expected to include a presidential contest as well. But open elections would be a first for Tunisia, in which Ben Ali typically won electoral mandates well over 95 percent.
In his last days Mr. Ben Ali cycled through a series of attempts to placate the protesters, firing his interior minister, pledging a corruption investigation, promising new freedoms and a resignation at the end of his term in 2014, and finally dismissing his whole cabinet. But the measures ultimately proved incapable of containing Tunisians’ anger.