In a dramatic turn of events, Mohamed Ghannouchi, Tunisia's prime minister, has just announced that he is temporarily taking control of the country. Details are still murky, and nobody seems to know where President Ben Ali is. Rumor has it that he's fled to France, or Malta under Libyan protection, or that the Army prevented him from escaping.
Ghannouchi put the matter this way: "Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise
his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise
temporarily the duties."
Earlier today, after thousands of protesters surrounded the Interior Ministry and battled security forces in the streets, Ben Ali announced that he had dissolved the government and would hold elections in six months. Then there were rumblings that there would be an announcement on state television, and many assumed that Ben Ali was going to make another speech.
Instead, Ghannouchi, a colorless functionary in his late 60s, showed up, surrounded by two other senior officials, and made his surprising announcement.
This may not solve the crisis. Ghannouchi is not necessarily any more popular than Ben Ali, though he's not nearly as tainted by the lurid tales of corruption and excess that so damaged the ruling family. But Tunisians certainly don't respect the prime minister; they call him "Mr. Oui Oui" because he's always saying yes to Ben Ali.
This is obviously a fast-moving story, and nobody seems to know what's going on with the Tunisian military. The police are much more powerful and numerous, and as of this afternoon there were still reports of gunfire against protesters. But there were also signs that security forces were unwilling to crack down and that may have told Ben Ali that it was time to get out of Dodge.
UPDATE: Here's the BBC's translation of Ghannouchi's full statement:
"Citizens, men and women! In accordance with the provisions of chapter
56 of the constitution, which stipulates that in case of the
impossibility of the president to conduct his duties temporarily, he
would delegate his prerogatives to the prime minister. Given the
difficulty for the president of the republic to carry out his duties
temporarily, I will, starting from now, exercise the prerogatives of the
president of the republic. I urge all sons and daughters of Tunisia -
of all ideological and political persuasions and of all sections and
regions - to show the spirit of patriotism and unity in order to enable
our country, which is dear to all of us, to overcome this difficult
juncture and to ensure its security and stability. While I assume this
responsibility, I promise to respect the constitution and to carry out
political, economic and social reforms which have been announced. I will
do so with perfection and through consultation with all national bodies
- including political parties, national organisations and civil society
components. May God grant me success!"
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images