Uprising brings joy to Tunisia – and fear to the region's autocrats

One man's suicide sparked a nationwide uprising, and now other repressive regimes across the Arab world can see the seeds of their own destruction in the burnt-out buildings of Tunis

Buildings burned, army snipers fired from rooftops, other gunfire sounded sporadically across the capital, and at least 42 were killed when a prison was torched, as Tunisia yesterday teetered between continued violent chaos and the first faltering steps towards a possible new start. Other regimes in North Africa and the Arab world looked on with some trepidation lest, as many predict, Tunisia's unrest should help foment a similar end to their lengthy and undemocratic rule.

The unseating by popular uprising of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of repressive rule and pocket-filling is virtually unprecedented in a region where democracy is a concept rather than a reality, economic hopelessness is widespread, and militant Islam a potent force. Yesterday, in the wake of Mr Ben Ali's sudden departure, Arab activists celebrated, thousands of messages congratulating the Tunisian people flooded the internet on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and many people replaced their profile pictures with red Tunisian flags.

One Egyptian human rights activist, Hossam Bahgat, said he hoped that his countrymen could do the same some day. "I feel like we are a giant step closer to our own liberation. What's significant about Tunisia is that literally days ago the regime seemed unshakable, and then eventually democracy prevailed without a single Western state lifting a finger." On Friday, activists opposed to President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade regime in Cairo chanted a reference to the Tunisian's president's airborne exile: "Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too."

Analysts certainly saw Tunisia as potentially a trigger for uprising in other countries in the region. Jean-Paul Pigat, of Business Monitor International, said yesterday: "Looking at the conditions that are necessary for unrest, it becomes clear that Egypt certainly ticks many of the boxes. Food-price inflation in Egypt is among the highest in the entire region, and the impact of food-price inflation on possible unrest should never be downplayed."

And Dr Maha Azzam, an associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, at Chatham House, said: "Tunisia has started a momentum that is going to be difficult to hold back. Certainly we are going to see turmoil in Egypt. I think it will come to a head with the presidential elections in September, but something could occur before this. Obviously we have to keep in mind that the level of security is very, very high in Egypt."

Another factor there is the limited use of social and internet media, compared with Tunisia. According to Professor Emma Murphy, of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University: "One quarter of Tunisians use Facebook. In Egypt there is a larger population, they are less well educated, they are not internet-connected, not watching Al Jazeera, they are watching state television. Whereas the Tunisians are very homogeneous, Egypt is a more complicated and diffuse place."

Some experts thought it telling that the Tunisian crisis was spontaneous and had no obvious architect or central guiding force. A Beirut-based commentator, Rami Khouri, said: "It marks the end of acquiescence and docility among masses of ordinary Arab citizens who had remained remarkably complacent for decades in the face of the mounting power of Western-backed Arab security states and police- and army-based ruling regimes."

The baton of revolution may take some time to be passed, particularly since, as Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Libya and Iran pointed out, other regimes "will not have the squeamishness about suppression with violence that the Tunisians showed". Tunisia's popular movement was being compared in several quarters yesterday to that in Poland, where a 1989 popular movement instigated freedom in Eastern Europe. But that process took many months, and was seeded in very different ground, as yesterday's chaotic events in Tunis demonstrated.

Soldiers and police exchanged fire with assailants in front of Tunisia's Interior Ministry, and snipers could be seen on the roof. The skirmish came soon after Tunisia swore in a new interim president. He is Fouad Mebazaa, the 77-year-old former president of the lower house of parliament, who swiftly ordered the creation of a unity government that could include the opposition, ignored under Mr Ben Ali's autocratic rule.

Mr Mebazaa, in his first move after being sworn in, seemed intent on reconciliation and calming tensions. In his first televised address, he said he had asked the Prime Minister to form a "national unity government in the country's best interests" in which all political parties will be consulted "without exception or exclusion".

The leadership changes came at a dizzying speed. Mr Ben Ali left abruptly on Friday night for Saudi Arabia, where he is now holed up in the small city of Abha, 310 miles south of Jeddah. Some of his family were said by the interim regime in Tunisia to be under arrest, and the French government says family members resident there "are not welcome in France and are leaving". None of these relatives was named.

Mr Ben Ali's long-time ally, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, then stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power. But on Saturday, Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the President's departure was permanent and gave Mr Mebazaa 60 days in which to organise new elections. Hours later, Mr Mebazaa was sworn in.

It was unclear who might emerge as the main candidates for power in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia. The autocratic leader had utterly dominated politics for decades, placing his men in positions of power and sending opponents to jail or into exile. It was also not clear how far Mr Mebazaa would go in inviting the opposition into the government. He has been part of the ruling apparatus for years, including leading parliament for two decades.

Amid the official to-ings and fro-ings, a fire at a prison in the Mediterranean resort of Monastir killed 42 people, and inmates staged a mass breakout. Sporadic gunfire was also heard in Tunis. Black smoke billowed over a giant supermarket as looters torched and emptied it. Shops near the main bazaar were looted. There were also a number of drive-by shootings.

As night fell, suburban neighbourhoods were being guarded from looters by impromptu militias formed by residents armed with clubs and knives. Later, there were reports that Mr Ben Ali's head of security had been arrested. However matters turn out, yesterday there was a palpable air of achievement among the protesters. Hamdi Kriaa, an accountant from Tunis, told the BBC: "We are living through special days, historic days. Yesterday I was protesting in front of the Interior Ministry together with some 10,000 people. The sensation was incredible. We are very proud to be Tunisian because we showed the whole world that we want to live in freedom."

Tunisian airspace reopened yesterday, but some flights were cancelled and others left after delays. Thousands of tourists were still being evacuated from the Mediterranean nation, known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins. Most, if not all, of the 3,000-odd Britons holidaying in the country are now expected to have arrived home.

Tourism is vital to Tunisia and is one of the reasons why Mr Ben Ali's country did not seem especially vulnerable to uprising until very recently. He managed the economy of his small nation of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern states, turning Tunisia into a beach haven for tourists. Growth last year was at 3.1 per cent, but unemployment was officially measured at 14 per cent, and was far higher – 52 per cent – among the young.

But there was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, and all it took to ignite the unrest was an educated but jobless 26-year-old committing suicide in mid-December after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused general anger against the regime into an outright revolt. He was the touch-paper for Tunisia. Will that country now be a fuse for other countries in the region?

Eyewitness accounts: 'Snipers pointed their guns down on us'

Lizzy Roe, 18, from Epping, Essex, is due to marry her Tunisian fiancé in two weeks: "They got my fiancé. He's in hospital now in a wheelchair. Where we live was safe, but in the towns there are people lying dead in the streets. There are people with half their heads missing. I didn't want to leave my fiancé, but I was told I had to come home."

Natasha Kent, in her 20s, from Wembley: "We wanted to stay but when we heard the petrol station go up, we wanted out. We hadn't left our hotel for four days. We were under curfew after dark. I went out once and was told by an army officer to go back. There was army everywhere."

Ross Wiseman, from Sunderland, was less than 36 hours into his holiday when he and his family were brought home: "On the journey to the airport there were armed soldiers on the streets, and that was intimidating. You could see the snipers on the top of buildings with their guns pointing down on us. But even though this has happened I would definitely go back. It was one of the nicest and most friendly places I have ever been to."