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Tunisian president flees country; PM promises new elections

Demonstrators face police during clashes in Tunis, Friday, Jan. 14, 2011. Tunisia's president declared a state of emergency and announced that he would fire his government as violent protests escalated Friday, with gunfire echoing in the North African country's usually calm capital and police lobbing tear gas at protesters.

Christophe Ena/The Associated Press/Christophe Ena/The Associated Press

A state of emergency gave way to a state of euphoria in Tunisia Friday as the country's reviled president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, unexpectedly fled the growing street protests.

Leaving so dramatically after more than 23 years in office, marked it as a historic day in Arab politics - one that showed that massive public outrage could oust a leader as powerful as Tunisia's Mr. Ben Ali.

Pressured by waves of protest, Mr. Ben Ali left Tunisia by plane as his Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced he was taking over as interim president, promising fresh elections would be held within six months.

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France, the former colonial power, refused Mr. Ben Ali permission to enter the country Friday. His plane later landed in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah early Saturday. Montreal is seen as one possible place of refuge, where Mr. Ben Ali could join his daughter and son-in-law who purchased a residence in the Westmount district in 2008.

But while some praise the "power of the people," and liken the dramatic street protests and the flight of the country's president to the Gdansk shipyards or Bucharest in 1989, it remains to be seen if the six-person "leadership council" now governing the North African nation really will constitute a break from the past two decades of a police state.

And it also remains very much to be seen whether other Arab autocracies will learn anything from the events.

"I fully expect Tunisia's ruling party to remain in power," said a Western analyst based in Cairo. "In fact, I was surprised Ben Ali gave up so easily."

"The opposition is weak and disorganized; there's no one else to govern. This 'revolution' is more like what happened in Russia than what took place in Iran," said the analyst, a veteran of both those countries' uprisings.

Regimes like Russia's and Tunisia's are remarkably resilient - "they're Stalinist," he explained, referring to the power of their security and intelligence forces. "The same old gang will be governing the place again, just as they are in Russia."

This is exactly what Rashid al-Ghannushi, leader of Tunisia's outlawed Renaissance Party, a moderate Islamist movement, told al Jazeera television last night: "Unless there's a complete eradication of the old regime," he said, nothing will change.

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For his part, interim-President Ghannouchi assured Tunisians he was acting strictly under the provisions of the country's constitution, which calls for the prime minister to assume executive power if the president is unable to.

Of course, that was exactly the way Mr. Ben Ali came to power in 1987, when, as prime minister, he declared the republic's first and president, Habib Bourguiba, to be unfit.

Ahmed Ounaies, Tunisia's former ambassador to the United Nations, praised the interim president as a "wise" and "competent" man, but said that whether there will be a break from the past would depend largely on whether the new authority reaches out to the opposition, trade unions and other representatives between now and the promised elections.

"If the governing body is large and representative" public confidence will come quickly, he said. But if "opportunists" from the last regime "compromise the process," little good will come of it.

Tunisia, an attractive, outwardly gentle country with a rich history of intellectualism, put great store in education, even under Mr. Ben Ali. It proved to be the regime's Achilles heel.

It was no accident that the first fatality of anti-government protests was an unemployed 26-year-old university graduate who was prevented by police from selling fruit and vegetables on the street. His expectations dashed, the man set himself on fire in protest and galvanized the public into action.

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Ironically, it may be the fact that Egyptians are much worse off than Tunisians that may spare the Hosni Mubarak regime from a fate such as Mr. Ben Ali's.

Egypt lacks the same quality of education and many of its people are so poor they don't have the kind of access to satellite television and the Internet's social media that helped fuel Tunisia's protests.

As well, stung by past protests, Egypt's government heavily subsidizes food, especially bread, a lesson Mr. Ben Ali learned only when it was too late.

President Mubarak is not lying awake worrying about what may happen to him, said the Cairo-based analyst. "Like every autocrat, he believes he's smarter than the others. And he knows that Egypt isn't Tunisia."

"I expect he'll stay the course he's on," he said: "one of economic liberalism and political suppression."

With a report from Associated Press

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