Tunisia in turmoil as President flees from the anger of the dispossessed

Tourists evacuated and state of emergency declared as one of North Africa's longest-standing regimes falls to popular protest
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Tunisia's president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country yesterday after sacking his government and declaring a state of emergency, as a month of violent protests that escalated to pitched street battles appeared to have ended his iron-fisted 23-year rule.

As Mr Ben Ali, 74, fled the capital, Tunis, the Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, addressed the nation, saying he had taken over and vowing to restore stability after the biggest protests the government had faced in decades. "Since the President is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the Prime Minister will exercise temporarily these duties," he said. He later added that he will meet representatives of political parties today to try to form a government.

US President Barack Obama was among the world leaders who called for calm and he went on to praise the protesters who had driven Mr Ben Ali from power. He said: "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."

Holiday companies Thomson and First Choice reacted to the political upheaval by beginning the evacuation of 1,800 tourists back to Britain after the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all but essential travel to Tunisia.

Thomson and First Choice said they planned to bring all their customers safely back to the UK by tomorrow. Several flights arrived yesterday and in a joint statement the tour companies said: "The remaining 1,437 customers in Tunisia will be brought home as soon as possible. We have been monitoring the situation continuously, and reacted immediately to the deterioration in circumstances and the change in FCO advice. We will now bring all customers back to the UK as quickly as possible."

There were conflicting reports of Mr Ben Ali's whereabouts last night. A likely destination was France but President Nicolas Sarkozy refused him permission to enter the country. Later on he was reported to be flying to Qatar.

His departure was prompted by thousands of people protesting against unemployment, corruption and political repression who had filled the streets of Tunis and crowded on rooftops, shouting "Ben Ali, assassin!" and "Ben Ali, out!" Police fired tear gas at groups of stone-throwing youths who tried to enter the Interior Ministry, and witnesses reported hearing gunshots.

The official news agency TAP had reported earlier that parliamentary elections would be held within six months, while state television announced emergency rule, which included an overnight curfew and threats of force against anyone violating the restrictions. "This state of emergency means that any gathering of more than three people is forbidden and that arms will be used by security forces in cases where a suspect does not stop when asked to do so by the police," the state television report said.

Dozens of people have been killed in the protests, which began in December after Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, set himself ablaze in the town of Sidi Bouzid. A university graduate forced to sell vegetables on the street because of crippling unemployment, Mr Bouazizi made his final desperate protest after police confiscated his food cart.

News of Bouazizi's self-immolation spread through Twitter and Facebook, and, by the time he died of his burns nearly three weeks later, protests had mushroomed throughout the North African nation. This week, the unrest reached the government's doorstep in the capital, and they responded by deploying the military and sending police armed with tear gas and live ammunition. Tunis descended into scenes of smoke, gunfire and chaos once again yesterday, with TV images showing police beating protesters on the streets. The government said 23 people have died in the protests, but opposition parties and human rights groups put the figure as high as 66.

Mr Ben Ali, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1987, made an emotional televised address on Thursday night, vowing to step aside in 2014 and ordering staple food prices be slashed. But the measures did not stem the anger. His regime is accused of harassment of critics and arbitrary arrest, often in the name of cracking down on Islamist extremist groups. Official figures put unemployment at 14 per cent, but the real figure is thought to be much higher.

Neighbouring Algeria has also been hit by unrest, with two people killed and hundreds injured in a wave of rioting last week sparked by high food prices.

Profile: Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali

*The inglorious end of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's presidency comes 23 years after he was first declared head of the state in Tunisia, when doctors decided his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, was unfit to govern.

Few international observers believe the transfer of power was anything other than a power grab by the then Prime Minister, who, like many an African leader before him, has devoted much of his time in office to career preservation – three election victories where he won more than 99 per cent of the vote are testament to that.

Supporters claim that Mr Ben Ali's presidency has left Tunisia in a stronger position than its neighbours in the Maghreb: Tunisia draws in more tourists than they do, while Mr Ben Ali has succeeded, in the most part, in keeping Islamic militancy at bay. The exception was the huge bomb that ripped through a synagogue in the resort of Djerba in 2002, which killed 21 people.

Educated in France and the US, Mr Ben Ali was appointed head of military security in 1964 before diplomatic posts took him to Morocco, Spain and Poland. He took the presidency within weeks of becoming Prime Minister – after only a brief political career. His fall from power has been even swifter.

Alistair Dawber