Tunis, Jan 15 (AP) After 23 years of iron-fisted rule,the president of Tunisia has been driven from power by violentprotests over soaring unemployment and corruption. Virtuallyunprecedented in modern Arab history, the populist uprisingsent an ominous message to authoritarian governments thatdominate the region.
The office of Saudi King Abdullah confirmed earlytoday that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and hisfamily had landed in Saudi Arabia, after several hours ofmystery over his whereabouts.
"As a result of the Saudi kingdom''s respect for theexceptional circumstances the Tunisian people are goingthrough, and with its wish for peace and security to return tothe people of Tunisia, we have welcomed" him, the statementsaid.
Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali''s ouster faceduncertainly, however, about what''s next for the North Africannation. The country was under the caretaker leadership of theprime minister who took control, the role of the army in thetransition was unknown, and it was uncertain whether Ben Ali''sdeparture would be enough to restore calm.
The ouster followed the country''s largest protests ingenerations and weeks of escalating unrest, sparked by oneman''s suicide and fueled by social media, cell phones andyoung people who have seen relatively little benefit fromTunisia''s recent economic growth.
Thousands of demonstrators from all walks of liferejected Ben Ali''s promises of change and mobbed Tunis, thecapital, to demand that he leave.
The government said at least 23 people have beenkilled in the riots, but opposition members put the death tollat more than three times that.
Police yesterday repeatedly clashed with protesters,some of whom climbed onto the entrance roof of the dreadedInterior Ministry, widely believed for years to be a placewhere the regime''s opponents were tortured.
With clouds of tear gas and black smoke drifting overthe city''s whitewashed buildings, Prime Minister MohammedGhannouchi went on state television to announce that he wasassuming power in this North African nation known mostly forits wide sandy beaches and ancient ruins.
"I take over the responsibilities temporarily of theleadership of the country at this difficult time to helprestore security," Ghannouchi said in a solemn statement onstate television. "I promise ... to respect the constitution,to work on reforming economic and social issues with care andto consult with all sides."
The prime minister, a longtime ally of the president,suggested that Ben Ali had willingly handed over control, butthe exact circumstances were unclear.
In a string of last-ditch efforts to tamp down theunrest, Ben Ali dissolved the government and promisedlegislative elections within six months - a pledge thatappeared to open at least the possibility of a new government.