Tunisia’s head of parliament named interim president

Saturday, January 15, 2011

TUNIS/PARIS - The speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, Foued Mbazaa, was Saturday named the country’s interim president, following the dramatic departure of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia’s Constitutional Council named the 77-year-old Mbazaa interim president, state television reported, after Ben Ali fled the country Friday in the wake of escalating protests.

While Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi initially took over the reins of power, the move was criticised by opposition politicians.

The North African country’s Constitutional Council said that under the constitution, the speaker of parliament, and not the prime minister, becomes interim president. The council also said that fresh presidential elections would have to be held within 60 days.

Ben Ali left Tunisia after a month of popular revolt that claimed dozens of lives. He had earlier fired his government and announced early elections. His plane landed in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, local media reported Saturday.

Saudi officials welcomed Ben Ali and his family, while also wishing “security and stability” to the people of Tunisia, the SPA news agency reported.

According to French media, Ben Ali opted to travel to Saudi Arabia after he was denied the right to flee to France.

It was not clear whether Ben Ali was forced to leave or had done so of his own accord. On Friday, Ghannouchi said Ben Ali’s return to Tunisia was “impossible”.

Opposition politician Mustafa Ben Jaafar said the collapse of Ben Ali’s government was no surprise.

“The regime had collapsed a long time ago,” he said. “There are a lot of opposition groups that came together and have been active in a variety of areas. But the last month was particularly important. The people have woken up and lost their fear.”

Meanwhile, looting and unrest continued to plague Tunisia Saturday, a day after a state of emergency was declared. Witnesses said the central train station in the capital Tunis was on fire overnight despite a nationwide curfew.

Supermarkets and residential buildings had also been set ablaze or looted and one hospital was attacked, reports said. Several of the targeted buildings were owned by relatives of Ben Ali.

Criminal gangs were taking advantage of the chaos and looting stores, Ben Jaafar told broadcaster France Info, adding that many government buildings had been attacked.

The Tunisian military was out in force Saturday in an attempt to reassert control, with troops marching through the centre of Tunis and helicopters circling through columns of smoke wafting up from the rubble.

But several Tunisians told journalists that they suspected the military itself was behind the plundering as it took advantage of a power vacuum.

Hundreds of European holidaymakers fled the country. German tour operators cancelled all flights to Tunisia. However, many other European tourists remain stranded in the country.

Ben Ali, a 74-year-old former interior minister, had been president since 1987, replacing self-styled “president for life” Habib Bourguiba when he was deposed in a coup.

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