Tunisia has been rocked by riots recently over unemployment and corruption, thought to have been sparked by the suicide of a young man who could not find a job and was barred from selling fruit without a permit.
The unrest culminated today with the ouster of president and strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced on state television that he had taken control of the country.
A cable released by WikiLeaks called Tunisia a "police state" and criticized Ben Ali for being out of touch with the people. This has fueled references to the current protests as a "WikiLeaks Revolution."
You can follow live updates of events in Tunisia here.
Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, who last week warned that the Middle East risks "sinking into sand" without reform, urged the new Tunisian government to implement changes following the ouster of President Ben Ali. According to the AP:
In a phone call to Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamal Merjan, Clinton offered U.S. support for Tunisia as it transitions from the autocratic rule of ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Clinton called for the government to address the underlying causes of the popular discontent that fueled the uprising, such as unemployment and poverty.
"She urged that the government work to re-establish order in the country in a responsible manner as quickly as possible," the State Department said in a statement released as looting and violence continued to rock Tunisia in the aftermath of Ben Ali's ouster on Friday. "She also underscored the importance of addressing popular concerns about the lack of civil liberties and economic opportunities, and the need to move forward with credible democratic elections."
Clinton said she was encouraged by remarks by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and interim President Fouad Mebazaa "indicating a willingness to work with Tunisians across the political spectrum and within civil society to build a truly representative government."
Security chief Ali Seriati and his deputy have been arrested in Tunisia for allegedly "provoking disorder, murder and pillaging," according to the AP. The wire service says:
Tensions appeared to be mounting between Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's departure and loyalists in danger of losing major perks. Tunisian police made dozens of arrests, some for drive-by shootings on buildings and people in the capital, Tunis. .. To cheers and smiles, some residents of Tunis tore down massive portraits of Ben Ali that were omnipresent during his reign, hanging on lampposts and billboards, gazing down over shops and hotels. Some stretched several stories high.
Reuters is reporting that a young Algerian man, Mohsen Bouterfif, has died after lighting himself on fire, an apparent imitation of the self-immolation by Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia. Bouazizi's suicide is credited with setting off the riots that toppled the Tunisian government. According to Reuters:
Mohsen Bouterfif doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire on Thursday after a meeting with the mayor of the small city of Boukhadra who was unable to provide him a job and a house, the daily El Khabar newspaper said. He died on Saturday of his burns.
About 100 young men protested over Mohsen's death in the town, in Tebessa province, 700 km east of Algiers. The governor of the province sacked the mayor, El Khabar said.
Several Algerian towns, including the capital Algiers, have experienced riots in recent weeks over unemployment and a sharp rise in the prices of food staples.
Leaders throughout the region have been uneasy since the historic toppling of the government in Tunisia.
AP reports: Soldiers and police have exchanged fire with assailants in front of Tunisia's Interior Ministry amid unrest after the longtime president was ousted.
Associated Press reporters saw the shootout Saturday that left two bodies on the ground on a big square in central Tunis. It was not clear whether the two were dead or injured, or who they were.
Snipers could be seen lying down on top of the ministry's roof.
The exchange came soon after Tunisia swore in a new interim president on Saturday. The country has been grappling with looting, deadly fires and widespread unrest after protests forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee on Friday.
The interim president — Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of parliament — ordered the creation of a unity government that could include the opposition, which had been ignored under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23 years of autocratic rule. Ben Ali fled the country Friday for Saudi Arabia following a popular uprising and deadly riots.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
Word that Tunisia's entrenched leader had fallen from power sent shockwaves across the Middle East. Arabs have been transfixed by Tunisians' rare display of grass-roots power and its culmination Friday in the ouster of the leader in one of the region's most authoritarian countries. Such an overthrow would be the region's biggest in decades, since Iran's 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed shah and mass demonstrations that toppled Sudan's government in the 1980s.
Activists and opposition figures in the wider Middle East say Tunisia's popular protests and clashes with police forces have broken a psychological barrier in other countries in the region with authoritarian regimes, political repression and a lack of jobs and opportunities. Friday's demonstration in Tunis, the largest public gathering in a generation, "may well go down in history as the Arab equivalent of the Solidarity movement in the Gdansk shipyard," said Rami Khouri, an Arab political commentator.
The AP reports:
TUNIS, Tunisia — After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, the president of Tunisia was driven from power Friday by violent protests over soaring unemployment and corruption. Virtually unprecedented in modern Arab history, the populist uprising sent an ominous message to authoritarian governments that dominate the region.
The office of Saudi King Abdullah confirmed early Saturday that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, after several hours of mystery over his whereabouts. "As a result of the Saudi kingdom's respect for the exceptional circumstances the Tunisian people are going through, and with its wish for peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia, we have welcomed" him, the statement said.
Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's ouster faced uncertainly, however, about what's next for the North African nation. The country was under the caretaker leadership of the prime minister who took control, the role of the army in the transition was unknown, and it was uncertain whether Ben Ali's departure would be enough to restore calm.
The ouster followed the country's largest protests in generations and weeks of escalating unrest, sparked by one man's suicide and fueled by social media, cell phones and young people who have seen relatively little benefit from Tunisia's recent economic growth. Thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life rejected Ben Ali's promises of change and mobbed Tunis, the capital, to demand that he leave.
The government said at least 23 people have been killed in the riots, but opposition members put the death toll at more than three times that.
On Friday, police repeatedly clashed with protesters, some of whom climbed onto the entrance roof of the dreaded Interior Ministry, widely believed for years to be a place where the regime's opponents were tortured.
Click here for the full report.
Al Jazeera reports that Tunisia is beset by looters:
A security vacuum left by the departure of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, is being exploited by looters and violent gangs, witnesses say.
Residents in several parts of the Tunisian capital, Tunis, said on Saturday that groups were prowling through neighbourhoods setting fire to buildings and attacking people and property, with no police in sight.
The Wall Street Journal looks at reaction to the developments in Tunisia from other Middle Eastern countries:
Immediate official reaction was limited around the region. Qatar, a small Gulf emirate that has tried to exercise a voice in the region despite its tiny population, released a statement saying: "Qatar respects the will and wishes of the Tunisian people."
Response from other regional players was muted. Some of these countries, especially Egypt, Syria and Iran, share similar festering social and economic problems similar to those in Tunisia: high youth unemployment, lack of affordable housing and political freedom.
Read the rest here.
Reuters is reporting that caretaker president Mohamed Ghannouchi will meet with representatives of different political parties to form a government on Saturday. "Tomorrow will be a decisive day," the service quotes him as saying.
Time is reporting that hundreds of riot police are on the streets in Tunisia as the mood remains tense, and that word of the president's departure has not yet completely spread. Vivienne Walt reports from Tunis:
With a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew in force since Wednesday, the streets were empty as darkness fell. Still, loud bursts of tear-gas fire punctured the silence long after dark, as a few brave souls ventured out. Army trucks patrolled the city late into the night. Several chants could be heard coming from rooftops downtown, as word began to spread that Ben Ali was gone, with many only half believing that a month of protests had forced the president out.
Gideon Rachman has written a blog post at Financial Times further outlining the similarities between Tunisia and Egypt. He writes:
It is all strangely reminiscent of Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak is now 82-years-old – and has not yet announced whether he will run for re-election later this year. Will his attitude be affected by developments in Tunisia?
The potential for unrest is not confined to North Africa. Saudi Arabia, the only Arab country that is a member of the G20, also fits the profile. King Abdullah is now in his eighties and is ailing. Despite its massive oil wealth, the country also suffers from high youth unemployment. (And yet, for all that, Saudi youngesters would, it seems, never dream of looking for work in the Gulf States – all the people doing relatively menial work here in Abu Dhabi seem to be Filipinos or South Asians.)
You can read the rest here.
According to Fulbright scholar @laurenbohn, who tweeted from outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo, the crowd there is chanting "Mubarak next," a reference to long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
According to Reuters, French President Nicholas Sarkozy is denying the ousted leader permission to enter France.
On that note, President Obama has release a statement on the events in Tunisia. It reads:
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. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.
As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia's future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.
James Traub has a great piece in Foreign Policy on the U.S.'s increasingly untenable role in promoting democracy in the Arab world. He writes:
Even democracy-promotion firebrands in the Bush administration accepted the logic of soft-pedaling criticism of Middle East allies. But that logic grows more questionable with every passing day, as the regimes lose their ability to contain the public outrage they have themselves provoked through their evident contempt for their own citizens; fury at official corruption and nepotism has just overthrown President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Yes, the United States still needs many of these states for oil, for regional diplomacy, for investment, and as a counterweight to Iran. Calls for reform will always be constrained by a broader diplomatic calculus. But the time has come -- as a matter not just of commitment to principle but of national security -- to align the United States more clearly and convincingly on the side of those who clamor for change.
You can read the article here.
A lot of people seem to be wondering where exactly Tunisia is. The short answer: North Africa. You can see a map here.
The media is abuzz with the influence of Facebook and Twitter on the protests in Tunisia. According to HuffPost blogger Firas Al-Atraqchi:
In what could be a sign of how social media is reshaping politics in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisian protesters turned to Twitter to broadcast information on their popular revolt against the government's economic and media policies.
Videos of street clashes in Tunisian towns were broadcast on YouTube before some were taken down, minute-by-minute updates on the number of casualties were retweeted, and reports on the political situation as it unraveled kept Arab audiences mesmerized.
Bechir Blagui, who runs the Free Tunisia website, says that people have tossed around different names for this "revolution."
"They called it the jasmine revolt, Sidi Bouzid revolt, Tunisian revolt... but there is only one name that does justice to what is happening in the homeland: Social media revolution, or back home, better called the Facebook revolution," Blagui said.
You can get an overview of the events leading up to President Ben Ali's exit from the country following violent protests here.
We'll be updating as events unfold.