The Middle East Channel

The first Twitter revolution?

Friday evening, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali boarded a jet for Malta, leaving his prime minister to face streets filled with protesters demanding a change of government in the North African country. The protests began weeks earlier in the central city of Sidi Bouzid, sparked by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate whose informal vegetable stall was shuttered by the police. His despair exemplified the frustration that many Tunisians felt with their contracting economy, high levels of unemployment and inequality, censored media and Internet, and widespread corruption. Protests spread from city to city, with trade unions, lawyers, and countless unemployed Tunisian youth demanding a change to an economic system that appeared to benefit a small number of families close to power and leave ordinary citizens behind.

As the protests intensified, Ben Ali offered concessions to his people: 23 years into his reign, he agreed to step down in 2014. He ordered the security police to stop using live ammunition on protesters after nearly 70 had been killed, cut the price of basic foodstuffs, and promised to allow a freer media and end Internet censorship. This morning, as pressures increased, he offered new elections within six months. But all that failed to placate the crowds, who finally got what they wanted later in the day: a Tunisia sans Ben Ali.

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Mr. Oui Oui takes charge

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!"