New Change of Power Raises Questions in Tunisia

January 15, 2011


TUNIS — Power in Tunisia changed hands again Saturday morning in the aftermath of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight from the country as soldiers kept the city under a tight lockdown, sporadic nighttime riots simmered down and clouds of smoke from the burning of a major supermarket hung over the bleached-city skyline.

Bowing to the continuation of the uprising over night, the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, ceded authority to the speaker of the Tunisian parliament. State television announced the change.

Mr. Ghannouchi, 69, a close ally of Mr. Ben Ali from his home town of Sousse, had declared himself interim president on Friday in violation of the Tunisian constitution, and he immediately became a target of the popular anger that brought down Mr. Ben Ali. By late Friday night, Facebook pages that had provided a central forum for the revolt had replaced their slogan “Ben Ali, Out” with a new one: “Ghannouchi, out!”

Some Tunisians on Saturday attributed the continued rioting over night to anger at Mr. Ghannouchi’s “coup,” but in the chaos around the Capitol it was becoming hard to distinguish protests from looting.

The handover to the speaker of parliament announced Saturday accords with the provisions of the Tunisian constitution. The speaker is expected to hold elections to reconstitute the government within six months.

Tunisia, however, has essentially been a one-party police state with no record of free elections, so the speaker of the parliament is himself another ally guided to his position by Mr. Ben Ali.

Tanks and soldiers were stationed throughout the city Saturday. Businesses remained shuttered. And police had closed off the central Bourguiba Boulevard, near the location of the Interior Ministry. On Friday, as many as ten thousand demonstrators had filled the boulevard from end to end for hours, until riot police finally cracked down with tear gas and billy clubs to establish martial law.

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