Tunisian President Flees Amid Turmoil

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Tunisia's President Zein al Abidine Ben Ali left the country Friday after more than a month of increasingly violent demonstrations against his rule.  In a nationwide address on Thursday, the president tried to calm the situation by promising long-sought reforms, but to no avail as the protests intensified with tens of thousands of people in the streets of Tunis, demanding his departure.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It is the end of an era in Tunisia. After more than 23 years in power, President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali left the country today. His departure follows more than a month of increasingly violent demonstrations against his rule.

NORRIS: Last night, in a nationwide address, the president tried to calm the situation by promising long-sought reforms, but to no avail. Protests intensified with tens of thousands of people in the streets of Tunis demanding his departure.

Eleanor Beardsley is in the Tunisian capital and she sends this report.

Mr. MOHAMED GHANNOUCHI (Prime Minister, Tunisia): (Speaking foreign language)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Just before 7 p.m., Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi came on Tunisian state television to announce that he would be taking over from President Ben Ali because he was no longer able to exercise his duties. The prime minister made no mention of Ben Ali's whereabouts, but Arab and European news reports say he has fled the country.

(Soundbite of chanting)

BEARDSLEY: All throughout the day Friday the crowds grew larger and larger on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the heart of Tunis. People from all walks of life gathered to express themselves like never before, they said. The crowd was peaceful, but bold and upbeat, at times singing the Tunisian national anthem. Everyone said the changes Ben Ali had promised in his televised speech last night were too little too late.

Mr. BEN KALEMI(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: We're here to say it's time for him to leave, says Ben Kalemi. The country is bankrupt and he has failed on every front. He is no longer credible.

Mr. KALEMI: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: The litany of grievances against Ben Ali go on and on. People rushed up to speak to foreign journalists, thanking them for coming. Tunisian state television never even mentioned the protest or the police crackdown today, preferring to stick to its usual programming.

People on the streets spoke of the corrupt justice system, the lack of free speech and lack of jobs, and nepotism, saying the president's family had plundered the country.

Salima Karim(ph) runs a bookstore.

Ms. SALIMA KARIM (Bookstore Owner): To import books from any country, we have to have a visa from the authorities. No books can be sold in our country if you don't have that visa. To have one book, we have to many times to wait months. And so many books are forbidden.

BEARDSLEY: Western powers like France and the U.S. have supported Ben Ali because he has been a bulwark against Islamist extremism. But people in this mostly secular country say there is no danger of extremism here. They say it's time for the world to support their pleas for real democracy.

(Soundbite of protest)

BEARDSLEY: Suddenly, shortly before sundown, the situation turned violent. The panicked crowd fled as the police fired tear gas. Journalists were forced into their hotels as the street battles continued.

(Soundbite of protest)

BEARDSLEY: I'm looking out my hotel window, which is in downtown Tunis on the main boulevard. Just half an hour ago it was filled with thousands of protestors calling for change. Now there's trash everywhere, tanks and riot police who are continuing to skirmish in the streets with youths throwing bottles and rocks and the police are responding with tear gas.

(Soundbite of protest)

BEARDSLEY: The one thing protestors said they could never forgive their president, says Habib Hamami(ph), was the killing of innocent people who were simply demanding their rights.

Mr. HABIB HAMAMI: He will never change, that's the true him. We saw him. He's continued to kill people. Today people are dying. Even today. He will never change.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: News that the president had stepped down came after the city was locked down under another night of curfew. Although, Ben Ali's departure seems exactly what the protestors wanted, the world will have to wait for their reactions. The only people on the streets of Tunis tonight are riot police.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis.

(Soundbite of protest)

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