TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled his country Friday night, capitulating after a month of mounting protests calling for an end to his 23 years of authoritarian rule. The official Saudi Arabian news agency said he arrived in that country early today.
The fall of Ben Ali marked the first time that widespread street demonstrations have overthrown an Arab leader, and people throughout the Arab world were debating whether Tunisia's uprising could prove to be a model, threatening other autocratic rulers in the region.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, a close ally from Ben Ali's hometown, announced that he was taking power as interim president. Yet by late Friday, Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt's slogan, "Ben Ali, Out," said "Ghannouchi Out."
News of Ben Ali's departure followed, by just hours, the biggest battle yet between the protesters and security forces. Emboldened by a last-minute pledge from Ben Ali to stop shooting demonstrators, as many as 10,000 people poured into the streets. But when they paraded the body of a person said to have been shot elsewhere in the city, police officers stormed the crowd, filling the streets with a thick cloud of tear gas and hammering fleeing demonstrators with clubs.
On Friday night the capital remained under a tight curfew, and no one was allowed out after 8 p.m. State media warned police would shoot curfew violators on sight. Tanks and other security forces were deployed in the city, and the airport was shut down.
The United States had counted Tunisia under Ben Ali as an important ally in battling terrorism. But Friday, President Barack Obama said in a statement that he applauded "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people." "The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights," he said.
The antigovernment protests began a month ago when a college-educated street vendor named Mohammed Bouaziz burned himself to death in despair at the frustration and joblessness confronting many educated young Tunisians. The protests quickly evolved from bread-and-butter issues to demands for an assault on the perceived corruption and self-enrichment of the ruling family.
Ben Ali, 74, came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987. He took over from "President-for-Life" Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after independence from France in 1956.