Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
A Tunisian woman waves the national flag in front of the Interior Ministry during clashes Friday between demonstrators and security forces in Tunis.
A Tunisian woman waves the national flag in front of the Interior Ministry during clashes Friday between demonstrators and security forces in Tunis. Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisia's authoritative president stepped down Friday after 23 years in power, placing the prime minister in control after weeks of anti-government protests and riots.
The announcement on state television came after a tense day of demonstrations and street clashes between police and protesters that followed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's promises to enact sweeping concessions to the opposition.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said on state television that he had assumed power. State TV said that Ghannouchi would remain as a caretaker until early elections are held.
Later, Saudi Arabia's state news agency announced that Ben Ali and his family had arrived in the kingdom. A statement from the office of King Abdullah said the decision to accept Ben Ali was made in light of "the exceptional circumstances the Tunisian people are going through" and with a "wish for peace and security to the people of Tunis."
Hours before the report that Ben Ali had fled, the official TAP news agency reported that the government had been dismissed and that new elections would be scheduled within six months. Soon thereafter, it was announced that a state of emergency had been declared.
Pent-up anger at unemployment, and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt, exploded into protests and clashes with police. The demonstrations started in the provinces but this week reached Tunis, the capital of the Mediterranean tourist haven that has long been spared unrest.
Since the protests began, rioting and shop burning by enraged youths has been commonplace in the North African country. Official estimates place the death toll by police gunfire at 23 — but opposition figures claim more than 100 have been killed.
The political unrest threatened to destroy Tunisia's reputation as a stable and prosperous economy with flourishing tourist and manufacturing industries and an enviable education system. Thousands of tourists have already been evacuated from the country as the violence has grown.
On Thursday, Ben Ali appeared on national television to pledge sweeping political changes — including a unity government with the opposition — and media freedoms, saying he would not seek re-election in 2014. He also ordered prices slashed on sugar, milk and bread.
"I have understood you; I understand your demands," Ben Ali said in his speech, adding that he was saddened by what's happening after having devoted so many years of service to the country. "We need to reach 2014 with proper reconciliation," he said.
He also ordered police to stop firing on protesters.
"Enough firing of real bullets," he said. "I refuse to see new victims fall."
Eleanor Beardsley, reporting in Tunis for NPR, said she witnessed police firing tear gas and using truncheons. She said she heard "a crackly kind of fire that sounded like gunshots.
"It was clear that the way the crowd was growing and growing, that the government couldn't stand that any longer, so they took measures," Beardsley said.
After Ben Ali's speech Thursday, buoyant crowds of supporters poured into the streets of Tunis, but critics said it was a move engineered to bolster support for the besieged president.
A day later, the opposition marches resumed in force, with the biggest protests to date and protesters chanting slogans such as "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!" One poster read, "We won't forget," a reference to the rioters killed, many by police bullets.
They rattled off a litany of complaints, including high unemployment, a corrupt justice system and an economy ruled by the president's family — "just like the Mafia," one protester told NPR.
"A hundred people didn't die so that we can have access to YouTube," another protester in Tunis said.
"We want to end this dictatorship," said Wadia Amar, a university chemistry professor who demonstrated Friday. "The Ben Ali clan should be brought to justice. They've taken everything."
Tunisia's ambassador to UNESCO, Mezri Haddad, resigned amid the unrest. He said he is resigning because he doesn't want to contribute to something that "is the opposite of my convictions and my conscience."
The White House on Friday condemned the violence and called on authorities "to fulfill the important commitments made by President Ben Ali in his speech."
Ben Ali, 74, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987, has prevented potential successors from emerging, sent many opponents to jail or into exile, and clamped down on the media and social networking sites.
The riots began after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit.
Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Dakar, Senegal, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.