New Tunisia leader sworn in amid unrest

Last Updated: Sunday, January 16, 2011 - 00:21

Tunis: Tunisia swore in a new interim president on Saturday -- the second change of power in this North African nation in less than 24 hours -- and grappled with looting, deadly fires and widespread unrest after protests forced its longtime leader to flee.

At least 42 inmates were killed in two prison fires on Saturday, looters emptied shops and torched the main train station and gunfire echoed through the capital.

The interim president -- Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of parliament -- ordered the creation of a unity government that could include the opposition, which had been ignored under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali`s 23 years of autocratic rule.

Ben Ali fled the country on Friday for Saudi Arabia following a popular uprising and deadly riots.

Anger over corruption and a lack of jobs and civil liberties ignited a month of protests, but Ben Ali`s departure -- a key demand of demonstrators -- did not quell the unrest.

While the protests were mostly peaceful, after Ben Ali`s departure rioters burned the main train station in Tunis and looted shops.

Mebazaa, in his first move after being sworn in, seemed intent on reconciliation and calming tensions. In his first televised address, he said he asked the premier to form a "national unity government in the country`s best interests" in which all political parties will be consulted "without exception nor exclusion".

The leadership changes came at a dizzying speed. Ben Ali left abruptly last night and his longtime ally, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly then with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return.
But on Saturday, Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the president`s departure was permanent and gave lawmaker Mebazaa 60 days in which to organise new elections. Hours later, Mebazaa was sworn in.

It was unclear who might emerge as the main candidates in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia: The autocratic leader has utterly dominated politics for decades, placing his men in positions of power and sending opponents to jail or into exile.

It was also not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaa would go to invite the opposition into the government. He is a political veteran who has been part of the ruling apparatus for years, including leading parliament for two decades.

Ben Ali`s downfall sent a potentially frightening message to autocratic leaders across the Arab world, especially because he did not seem especially vulnerable until very recently. For ordinary people, the unrest that followed his departure was frightening.
A fire at a prison in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed 42 people, coroner Tarek Mghirbi said. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear.

Witnesses said another deadly fire also broke out at a prison farther down the coast, in Mahdia, but the exact number of deaths was not yet known.

Sporadic gunfire was heard in the capital of Tunis on Saturday. Black smoke billowed over a giant supermarket as looters torched and emptied it. An eyewitness saw soldiers fire warning shots and try to stop looters from sacking the supermarket in Ariana, north of the capital, to no avail. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.

A helicopter circled low over the capital, apparently acting as a spotter for fires or pillaging.

Public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighbourhoods on the capital`s outskirts, describing attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants.

"This isn`t good at all. I`m very afraid for the kids and myself," said Lilia Ben Romdhan, a mother of three in outer Tunis. "If (he) had stayed in the country it would be better".

Kamel Fdela, selling oranges and bananas in the neighbourhood, said he wants democracy but was worried about whether that would come to pass. He also feared potential food shortages with store closed amid the chaos.

"God willing, a real man will take over," he said. Tunisian airspace reopened today, but some flights were canceled and others left with delays. Thousands of tourists were still being evacuated from the Mediterranean nation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins. Tour operator Thomas Cook`s German subsidiary sent home 200 tourists from Tunisia on Friday, but 1,800 were still waiting to be flown out.

President Barack Obama said he applauded the courage and dignity of protesting Tunisians, and urged all parties to keep calm and avoid violence.

Saudi King Abdullah`s palace confirmed today that the ousted president and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for "peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia".

It did not give Ben Ali`s exact whereabouts, but a source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 500 kilometres south of Jeddah.

The source said Ben Ali had been taken there to avoid sparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians in Jeddah.

Ben Ali managed the economy of his small country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern nations grappling with calcified economies and booming young populations. He turned Tunisia into a beach haven for European tourists, helping create an area of stability in volatile North Africa. There was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, but a better quality of life for many than in neighbouring countries such as Algeria and Libya.

Bureau Report



First Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011 - 00:21

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