Tunis: Tunisia sped toward a new future after its iron-fisted leader fled, with an interim president sworn in and ordering the country`s first multiparty government to be formed.
But snipers boldly attacked police beside the Interior Ministry, violence hit tony neighborhoods and prisons alike and gunfire crackled steadily in the capital Saturday, heaping doubt on hopes for a smooth transition to a new era.
The omnipresent posters of ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were coming down, a vivid signal to citizens that Tunisia is moving on after 23 years of autocratic rule. Even the main state TV station changed its name.
For Tunisians who protested for four weeks — with police shooting dozens to death — the announcement that a "government of national unity" would be formed opens the possibility of a leap toward democracy in this Muslim country in North Africa whose modernity clashed with Ben Ali`s repressive rule.
The nation must wait 60 days to see whether the party that maintained the ex-leader in power gets an upper hand in the new government, locking the old system back in place.
The 74-year-old Ben Ali fled his country Friday for Saudi Arabia, literally chased out by angry legions of citizens protesting joblessness, corruption and lack of freedoms — a first for an Arab country. Numerous citizens laid a large measure of blame for his fate on his in-laws, supremely wealthy and considered just as corrupt.
The interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of parliament, was named Saturday — the second change of power in fewer than 24 hours. He quickly ordered the creation of a unity government that by its nature would include the opposition which had been frozen out under Ben Ali.
"We can start to hope," said a founder of the main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party, Nejib Chebbi. The question now, he said, is whether a new government will be pluralistic or again dominated by Ben Ali`s ruling RCD party. "If the RCD is dominant, we`re not out of the woods."
The Tunis airport reopened Saturday but the state of emergency declared Thursday continued. Instability ruled in the streets and spotter helicopters churned in the sky above the capital.
Fire blackened the main Tunis train station, torched along with large stores and scattered shops as troublemakers defied a curfew Friday night.
At least 42 people were killed Saturday in a prison fire in a resort town and the director of another prison let 1,000 inmates flee after a deadly rebellion.
Assailants fired on police guarding the Interior Ministry in a bold attack on the symbol of the Ben Ali reign and police returned fire, battening down the city center. An Associated Press Television News cameraman near the scene saw two bodies on the ground. Their identities were not known.
Street violence took a new form Saturday with marauding gangs sacking homes in at least one wealthy neighborhood and residents, armed with golf clubs, forming self-styled vigilante committees to protect themselves.
Rumors were rife in a chaotic Tunisia, with some citizens voicing suspicions the gangs were made up of Ben Ali loyalists bent on sewing chaos in the country.
Many Tunisians also expressed worries about what lies ahead.
"This all happened in three days. Maybe tomorrow we can`t eat," said Mohsen Yacoubi, referring to the mostly closed shops in the capital. He said Ben Ali`s departure should have been negotiated over time. "Instead, it`s war right away.
Ben Ali`s downfall sent a warning to other autocratic leaders across the Arab world, especially because he did not seem vulnerable until very recently and managed his country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern nations.
However, the new era he dubbed "The Change" — starting when he snatched power from the nation`s founder, President Habib Bourguiba, in a bloodless palace coup in 1987 — never fully materialized.
The improved quality of life for many failed to keep up with the increased limits on civil rights like freedom of expression and a growing reputation as a police state — invisible to the tourists flocking to the country`s Mediterranean beaches.
The unemployment rate stands officially at 14 percent but is thought to be far higher among the young — who make up 52 percent of Tunisia`s 10 million inhabitants.