TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, facing the worst unrest of his rule, said on Thursday he would not run again when his term ends in 2014, prompting scenes of celebration in the streets of the capital.
Ben Ali, only the second head of state Tunisia has ever had and in office for over 23 years, set his departure date in an emotional televised speech made after weeks of deadly clashes between protesters and police.
Many of those involved in the protests said they were fed up with unemployment, a lack of liberty and the huge wealth of a tiny elite under Ben Ali, and they were expecting that he would try to extend his rule for another, sixth term.
In the Lafayette district in the centre of Tunis, where a few hours earlier police had shot and wounded protesters, hundreds of people ignored a curfew and came into the streets after Ben Ali’s speech ended.
People waved Tunisian flags and chanted “Viva Ben Ali!” and “Thank you Ben Ali!” while cars sounded their horns.
“We are happy because he spoke the language of the people. We hope that all the bad memories will be left in the past and we will have only freedom,” said Ramzi Ben Kraim, a 22-year-old student.
Soon after Ben Ali’s speech, Internet sites which for weeks had been blocked, including YouTube and Dailymotion, started working.
It was still not clear though if Ben Ali’s opponents would view him as a lame duck and try to force him out immediately. There was also no obvious candidate to succeed Ben Ali, who had dominated political life in Tunisia and sidelined rivals.
In the impoverished provincial cities that have been the heartlands of the protest movement, there was calm after days of protests and in one town, Tataouine, about 4,000 people took to the streets to salute Ben Ali’s decision, a witness said.
But there was still anger at Ben Ali in Gassrine, scene of some of the deadliest clashes with police. “The people here cannot be happy because our town is gravely wounded,” said local man Mohsen Nasri by telephone.
“There were some good things in the (president’s) speech but we expected an apology for our town.”
Ben Ali appeared on television at the end of a day when the unrest appeared to be slipping out of his government’s control.
Protesters fought running battles with police in the centre of the city of the first time, and witnesses said youths ransacked upmarket shops in the chic holiday resort of Hammamet, where Ben Ali himself has one of his residences.
Ratcheting up the international pressure, former colonial power France for the first time criticised Ben Ali’s handling of the protests and several countries, including the United States, advised citizens to stay away, threatening the tourism trade which is Tunisia’s economic lifeblood.
Ben Ali, who is 74, was contrite and appeared close to tears at times during his televised address. He spoke for the first time in the local dialect instead of using classical Arabic.
“I have been deceived, they deceived me,” he said, in a reference to senior officials. “I am not the sun which shines over everything,” he said.
“I understand the Tunisians, I understand their demands. I am sad about what is happening now after 50 years of service to the country, military service, all the different posts, 23 years of the presidency.”
“I said in 1987 no presidencies for life. I repeat now no presidencies for life. I refuse to touch the constitution, I will not change the age in the constitution.”
The Tunisian constitution states no one over 75 years of age can run for the presidency. Many people expected he would have the document amended, as he has done in the past, so he could qualify for a new term.
Ben Ali also ordered security forces to stop shooting at civilians and promised freedom of the press and to stop blocking Internet sites used to criticise his administration.
Najib Chebbi, one of Ben Ali’s most outspoken opponents inside the country and the man Western diplomats view as the most credible figure in the opposition, said the president had done the right thing.
“But what remains (to be seen) is how will this be carried out and I ask that a coalition of government be created,” he said. “The new policy in the speech was good and we await the concrete details.
Tunisia’s protests have been watched closely in other countries in the Arab world with the potential for social unrest, especially after rises in world food prices.
The official death toll from several weeks of clashes with police was 23 civilians killed, but witness account and human rights groups put the figure significantly higher.
Tunisian officials said violent extremists bent on destruction had hijacked the protests, and that police had been left with no option to fire at them in self-defence. There were no reports of any police killed.