Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi appeared on state-run television this evening and announced he was assuming presidential powers, Bloomberg reported. Citing Al-Arabiya, Bloomberg reported that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country for Malta.
The surprise announcement came after thousands of protesters swarmed the streets of the capital Tunis and called on Ben Ali to quit. Riot police reportedly fired tear gas and live rounds at the rally as it approached the Interior Ministry headquarters, a symbol of his repressive regime, according to the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper.
Shortly before leaving office, Ben Ali declared a state of emergency, and the army has now taken over control of security from the police, Bloomberg reports. Public gatherings of more than three people have been banned, and security forces have been authorized to gun down anyone who violates the order.
International tour operators have evacuated thousands of mainly European tourists from the Mediterranean country over the past few days as the campaign of civil disobedience intensified. British holiday giant Thomas Cook said it was asking its 3,800 British, Irish and German customers in Tunisia to leave the country, according to the AP, while another 200 Dutch tourists were flown out on Thursday via a chartered flight.
The country has been rocked by a series of nationwide and often bloody protests since mid-December, when a college-educated street vendor burned himself to death after police confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart, leaving him unable to make a living. His suicide resonated with many ordinary Tunisians who also face dismal prospects -- the country's official unemployment rate sits at 14 percent, although it is far higher for educated youth.
But the protests rapidly shifted from demands for more jobs to demands for political reform, focused largely on the corruption of the ruling family. Demonstrators were whipped up by anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks' publication of cables from the U.S. embassy in Tunisia, which provided a vivid insight into the luxuries enjoyed by the Ben Ali clan. A 2009 cable revealed how the "The Family" treated their dinner party guests to fruit, cakes and frozen yogurt freshly flown in on a private jet from the southern French resort of St. Tropez.
Another 2008 dispatch -- snappily titled "Corruption in Tunisia: What's Yours is Mine" -- explained that the family of the president's second wife, Leila, had used its power to take control of an "airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia's two private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford distribution, a real estate development company, and the list goes on." Tunisians already knew that the first family was corrupt, but WikiLeaks gave them access to in-depth and damning details that the country's heavily censored media would never dare publish. They spread the comments on social network sites like Facebook, according to the AP.
The 74-year-old president -- who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987 that removed the ailing founding father of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba -- tried to calm public anger by making a series of dramatic concessions. Ben Ali used a televised address on Thursday to promise that prices of basic foodstuffs would be reduced and media censorship ended so "long as [outlets] respect our values and the value of the profession," according to CNN.
The president's initial concessions failed to prevent today's protest, and so this afternoon Ben Ali made a new set of pledges: He would sack his much-criticized government and hold new parliamentary elections within six months. A few hours later, Prime Minister Ghannouchi appeared on TV and announced he was taking charge.
This change may not end the protests. Ghannouchi is not necessarily more popular than Ben Ali, reports Foreign Policy, although he isn't believed to be as steeped in corruption as his former boss. He certainly doesn't have the respect of his people, who nicknamed the former prime minister "Mr. Oui Oui" for his willingness to obey Ben Ali's every demand.