TUNIS (Reuters) - A surge of anger in the streets over police repression and poverty swept Tunisia’s veteran leader from power on Friday, sending a chill through unpopular authoritarian governments across the Arab world.
President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali stepped aside after more than two decades in power and looked to have flown out of the country. His exact whereabouts were unclear.
Ben Ali’s prime minister told Tunisians he would steer the state until early elections. The streets of the capital were mostly calm amid heavy security, but analysts questioned whether the change of face at the top would satisfy the protesters.
After days of violence that spread from provincial towns to Tunis, leaving dozens dead as security forces struggled to contain angry young demonstrators, the government declared a state of emergency on Friday and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The last ditch attempt to reassert control failed and within hours it was announced Ben Ali had quit.
The violence and rapid turn of events sent shockwaves across the Arab world, where similar authoritarian rulers are deeply entrenched, but face mounting pressures from growing young populations, economic hardship and the appeal of militant Islam.
“The fall of Ben Ali marks the first ever collapse of an autocratic regime in the face of a popular uprising in the Arab world,” said U.S. political risk consultancy Stratfor.
“Leaders across the Arab world, and especially in North Africa, will now look to the Tunisian example with concerns about how the situation could be replicated in their own countries.”
There was no evidence of new protests in Tunis after the announcement by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi that he would act as president until elections could be held. But occasional gunfire could still be heard. Police helicopters flew over the city after Ghannouchi, in an interview with a private television channel, promised to protect people from looters.
The calm, after days of intense violence, appeared fragile.
Fadhel Bel Taher, whose brother died in the clashes, told al Jazeera television that protests would soon resume. “Tomorrow we will be back in the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until ... the regime is gone,” he said.
Some, however, were in a more jubilant mood. In the town of Menzel Bouzaiane, south of Tunis, about 5,000 people gathered in the streets to celebrate Ben Ali’s apparent departure, local trade union activist Mohamed Fadhel told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Ben Ali had left the country, as widely reported by Arabic TV stations.
Saudi Arabian-owned Al Arabiya TV reported that he had landed in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
He had been originally thought to have flown to France, Tunis’s former colonial power, but French media quoted President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying that France had refused to give Ben Ali permission to enter the country.
Western powers have long turned a blind eye to rulers in the region who provide a bulwark against Islamist radicals. The United States led international calls for calm and for the people of Tunisia to be given a free choice of leaders.
“I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” said U.S. President Barack Obama.
In Washington, Clinton said in a statement that Ben Ali had left Tunisia. “Young people especially need to have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives,” she said after returning from a trip to the Middle East this week.
“Addressing these concerns will be challenging, but the United States stands ready to help,” she added.
Western countries urged their citizens to avoid travel to the popular tourist destination due to the instability. Holiday operator Thomas Cook said it was evacuating almost 4,000 German, British and Irish tourists from Tunisia.
It remained uncertain how far those around Ben Ali, only the second president Tunisia has had since independence from France, were ready to relinquish power to opposition groups.
“Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties,” Ghannouchi said.
“I call on the sons and daughters of Tunisia, of all political and intellectual persuasions, to unite to allow our beloved country to overcome this difficult period and to return to stability.”
In power since 1987, Ben Ali had declared a state of emergency earlier on Friday and said protesters would be shot in an increasingly violent confrontation. He had also dismissed the government and called an early parliamentary election.
The latest unrest was sparked when police prevented an unemployed graduate from selling fruit without a licence and he set fire to himself, dying shortly afterwards of his burns.
As the violence escalated, police fired tear gas to disperse crowds in central Tunis demanding his immediate resignation. They were not satisfied with his promise on Thursday to step down, but only at the end of his current term in 2014.
A Reuters photographer saw people looting supermarkets in a Tunis suburb and said they had set fire to a police station.
On almost every block in suburban Tunis, people were standing on the street with baseball bats to protect their cars and homes from damage by looters, a Reuters reporter said.
Opposition leader Najib Chebbi, one of Ben Ali’s most outspoken critics, described the events as a “regime change.”
“This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession,” he told France’s I-Tele TV.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, John Irish, Brian Love and Laure Bretton in Paris; writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Matthew Jones