By Mohamed Hasni and Hamida Ben Salah / AFP
TUNIS: Tunisian President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali fired his government and declared a state of emergency Friday as escalating protests against his rule forced the evacuation of thousands of European tourists.
Only hours after Ben Ali vowed on state television that he would stand down in 2014 and prices of basic foodstuffs would be cut, his prime minister announced a clear-out of government and elections in six months.
Authorities declared a state of emergency across the country as police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse thousands of demonstrators in the heart of the capital where clashes broke out between security forces and protesters.
Emboldened by the administration’s increasing admissions of fallibility, opponents of Ben Ali took to the streets in their thousands in the capital and several other towns, urging him to bring an immediate end to his 23-year rule.
In comments carried by the official TAP news agency, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said Ben Ali had decided “to dismiss the government and call early elections in six months”.
The statement said the decision had been made the day before, but there had been no mention of the government’s dismissal in Thursday night’s address although Ben Ali did take a swipe at his lieutenants for “deceit”.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane also indicated that Ben Ali could appoint a national unity government, saying such an arrangement would be feasible and “totally normal” for the country.
But the apparent concessions by the 74-year-old president did little to stem the calls for change with the chant of “Ben Ali Out!” echoing at demonstrations across the country.
Protestors even descended on the interior ministry in Tunis, one of the symbols of Ben Ali’s iron-fisted rule, where they openly chanted for the president’s swift departure and paid tribute to the “blood of the martyrs”.
Security forces surrounded the ministry and did not move against the growing group for several hours, but later fired volleys of tear gas that send the crowd running.
Youths hurled stones and chairs at police as armored vehicles carrying soldiers took up position around the ministry.
Clashes erupted later between police and protestors in the city centre, according to AFP journalists.
Earlier lawyers in black robes and nurses in white uniforms joined hundreds of unionists and ordinary citizens shouting slogans like “We will carry on until the regime falls”.
“This is a demonstration of hope,” said Moncef Ben Mrad, editor of an independent newspaper.
“It is the birth of a people who demand more freedom and that the families that have looted the country return the wealth and are called to account.”
A Paris-based rights group says 66 people have been killed since mid-December in the worst unrest faced in Ben Ali’s rule, about three times higher than the official toll.
Although Ben Ali had called on Thursday for an end to live firing by his security forces, medical sources said 13 people had been shot dead on the same night in the Tunisian capital and suburbs.
In a bid to quell the unrest, the president promised in his national address Thursday that he would not seek another term in office and vowed to liberalize the political system.
Addressing other complaints from protestors, he pledged to lower the prices of basic commodities such as milk, bread and sugar, and lift restrictions on the Internet.
In an earlier attempt restore calm, he vowed Monday to create 300,000 new jobs.
Unemployment — officially at 14 percent, although other estimates put it at double that figure — was an initial spark for the outpouring of anger unleashed mid-December.
But the attempts to stem the protests had little impact, with demonstrations also erupting in several towns outside the capital Friday while the main Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT) called a two-hour strike.
About 3,000 people marched in Sidi Bouzid, from where the wave of protests was unleashed after the suicide of a young graduate, an AFP reporter said.
Marchers yelled “Ben Ali Out!” in the central town of Kairouan, with the same slogan used in Gafsa in the southwest, union sources said.
With the tensions mounting, the leading tour operator Thomas Cook said it was evacuating more than 4,000 holidaymakers from the Mediterranean nation.
Around 2,000 German holidaymakers were being repatriated, while a further 1,800 from Britain and Ireland were being flown home and 540 were returning to Belgium.
Other tour firms gave customers the option of coming home early if they wanted.
Mauritania and Senegal meanwhile ordered measures to keep food prices down, with Algeria also shaken by protests this month over food costs.