Tension Grips Tunisia's Capital After Leader Flees

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Christophe Ena / AP Photo

Amid tear gas, a demonstrator throws a stone at police during a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, on Jan. 14, 2011

As dusk fell on this gracious, tree-lined capital, Tunis was a city under siege — but the man who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years was gone, driven out by a popular revolt that may rock the entire region. I had landed in Tunis just moments before President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, prompting declaration of a state of emergency and closure of the airport. I saw a city empty except for hundreds of riot police occupying the streets. The main boulevard, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, was shut, with soldiers peeking from the gun turrets of tanks, their rifles pointed outward. The choking smell of tear gas hung over the evacuated streets, where hundreds of shoes lay scattered on the sidewalk, having been abandoned by people fleeing a police assault just an hour earlier. Bits of brick broken from large flowerpots lining the streets were everywhere, having been hurled by protesters. Young plainclothes security police outside the Ministry of the Interior building — the power center of Ben Ali's regime — prowled the streets, wielding makeshift batons made of table legs and wooden stakes.

Some of the security policemen hurled insults, while one erupted, shouting at me in French, "This is the state of Tunisia. Are you happy? Are you happy now? Bravo!" Around 5 p.m., uniformed police burst into the Hotel Carlton, a small two-star lodging on the avenue, and hauled out a group of protesters who had taken shelter in its corridors for much of the afternoon. They dragged one man down the street, beating him with batons.

With a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew in force since Wednesday, Jan. 12, the streets were empty as darkness fell. 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. "I'm so happy that at last Tunisians are freed from the dictator," Taoufik Aloulou, a physician in Tunis, tells TIME. "People have been too afraid to express their opinions. Now it is finished at last — the corruption and systematic theft of the country's wealth."

It is the allegation of wide-scale corruption that appears to have pushed Ben Ali's regime over the edge — particularly as the recession's impact has left young Tunisians with few job prospects. About half of the population is under 25 and has never known any leader other than Ben Ali, who assumed power in a bloodless coup 23 years ago. As thousands of university graduates have found themselves unemployed, they have had little tolerance for the lavish lifestyle of a small elite, most notably the extended family of the President.

Ben Ali's systematic repression of political opposition over the past two decades means, however, that his departure leaves Tunisia's immediate future deeply uncertain. Shortly after 6 p.m., Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, whose government had only hours earlier been fired by Ben Ali, went on television to announce that he had taken over as interim President and that the speaker of parliament would preside over a government council. "This is frightening," Walid Elleuch, a 26-year-old medical intern from the city of Monastir in eastern Tunisia, said by telephone Thursday night, Jan. 13, after Ben Ali had fled. "We don't have faith in Ghannouchi. We can only hope this is good for Tunisia." There was no word from Ghannouchi about the elections that Ben Ali, in an attempt to placate protesters earlier in the day, had promised would be held in six months.

About 60 protesters are believed to have been killed in the four weeks of rioting, which appeared to erupt spontaneously after Mohammed Bouazizi, a computer-science graduate, set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid after being ordered by police to stop selling vegetables on the street because he lacked the correct permit. Bouazizi, who had been unable to find a job in his profession, died of his injuries in a hospital; his suicide ignited protests that spread like a brush fire from city to city until engulfing the capital this week.

On Friday morning, about 5,000 protesters poured into Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis' broad boulevard partly modeled on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. They smashed flowerpots and hurled shards of brick at the police. Security forces fired tear-gas canisters late into the day, eventually locking down the area and clearing the streets of people. After imposing a curfew Wednesday night, Ben Ali had appeared on state-run television, promising to leave office by 2014, to loosen censorship laws and to create about 300,000 new jobs. But that proved to be too little, too late. On Thursday night, hundreds of Ben Ali loyalists chanted in support of him on the streets of the capital, ignoring the dusk-to-dawn curfew. And about a dozen people were reportedly killed in running battles in the suburbs of Tunis overnight. But sometime during Friday, the President appeared to have decided the game was up and left the country for an unknown destination.

The youth unemployment that may have sparked Ben Ali's downfall ironically may have been caused in part by his education policy, long seen as a model for the region: education is compulsory until age 16, and college education is virtually free. But there are few jobs for the new graduates whose education has raised their expectations. "We want jobs, and we want honest elections," said Nejla Saad, 26, who graduated as a civil engineer from Tunis' School of Engineering last September but has yet to find work. Speaking by phone last night, she expressed deep disappointment that Ben Ali fled rather than face prosecution. "He did not resign," she said. "He just ceded control to his Prime Minister."

"I hope that what has happened will calm the streets," says Ridha Kefi, Tunis correspondent for the magazine New Africa. "Let the government organize a transition. But I don't know that will happen." Kefi believes that opposition parties, which until now have been excluded from contesting elections, will seek a consensus government.

Ben Ali's failure to quell the demonstrations despite a huge security presence in the streets could have a large impact on the region, where similar regimes have ruled for decades. Although not connected to Tunisia's protests, hundreds of people have demonstrated during the past few weeks over high food prices in neighboring Algeria. And the spectacle of the army and police unable or unwilling to suppress a popular rebellion may be cause for anxiety in many other Arab capitals. It's still midwinter in the Middle East, but democracy activists across the region will be hoping that Tunisia has ushered in an "Arab spring."