Tunisia to hold elections within 60 days

Reuters, Saturday 15 Jan 2011

As deadly fires raged in the town of Monastir and protests swept across the capital, the parliamentary speaker became interim leader following the departure of the deposed Ben Ali

Tunisia
A demonstrator holds a placard reading "Ben Ali get out" in Tunis, Friday, 14 January 2011. (AP)

Tunisia should hold a presidential election within 60 days, the constitutional authority said on Saturday, as the army patrolled the capital to try to stem protests that swept the president from power.

The authority also said that under the constitution the speaker of parliament should be the interim president.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi had said on Friday he was taking over as interim president after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president for more than 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia following weeks of protests over poverty, unemployment and repression.

Ghannouchi, who on Saturday was in talks with the opposition on forming a new government, has not reacted to the announcement by the council, the highest authority on constitutional issues.

In a sign that Ben Ali's rule was over, workers were taking down a portrait of the former president outside the headquarters of his RCD party on Mohamed V Avenue in the centre of Tunis.

Army roadblocks stopped access on Saturday to Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis' main thoroughfare and scene of clashes on Friday. Several hundred soldiers as well as tanks, military jeeps and armoured personnel carriers manned the approaching roads, still littered with the debris from Friday's violence.

A military helicopter circled over the city centre. "We are very happy to be free after 23 years of prison," said Fahmi Bouraoui, who was drinking coffee in the Mozart cafe, one of a few businesses that re-opened on Saturday morning.

Tens of prisoners were killed in a mass breakout and a fire at two prisons in Tunisia on Saturday, but it was not immediately clear how they were linked to the protests.

"The Constitutional Council announces that the post of president is definitively vacant so we should refer to article 57 of the constitution, which states that the speaker of parliament occupies the post of president temporarily and calls for elections within a period of between 45 and 60 days," Fathi Abd Ennather, president of the council said on state television.

Tunisia's speaker of parliament is Fouad Mebazaa.

It was not clear if protesters would accept the arrangement because of Mebazaa and Ghannouchi's links to Ben Ali's rule.

An analyst said the council's announcement did not signal any conflict between Ghannouchi and other senior figures.

Tunisian analyst Nourredine Mbarki told Reuters: "Ghannouchi said he was temporarily president because he was not sure if Ben Ali had fled, or he thought Ben Ali could resume his post.

"So, once we are sure the president is no longer here and did not leave instructions authorising the prime minister to occupy the post, then automatically the speaker of parliament becomes the interim president of the country."

The violence and fall of Ben Ali sent shockwaves across the Arab world and was greeted with silence from authoritarian rulers who face pressure from young populations disenchanted with their repressive policies and lack of economic prospects.

Western powers have long turned a blind eye to rulers in the region who provide a bulwark against Islamist radicals. The United States led international calls for calm and for the people of Tunisia to be given a free choice of leaders.

Ghannouchi confirmed reports that members of Ben Ali's family had been arrested, but did not say who.

Tunisian air space, closed on Friday, was reopened and the official news agency said all airports were open.

Ghannouchi went on live television, via telephone, on Friday night to promise everything was being done to restore order.

He said he would meet representatives of political parties on Saturday to attempt to form a coalition government.

One of those who had earlier been invited to meet Ghannouchi for coalition talks was Najib Chebbi, a lawyer long been seen by Western diplomats as the most credible figure in the opposition.

"This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it's the succession," Chebbi told France's I-Tele TV. "It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose."

Mustafa Ben Jaafar, head of the Union of Freedom and Labour party, told Reuters he and two other opposition figures, Chebbi and Ahmed Ibrahim, head of Ettajdid party, were meeting Ghannouchi on Saturday.

Protesters said they would continue to take to the streets.

"We will be back on the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until ... the regime is gone. The street has spoken," said Fadhel Bel Taher, whose brother was one of dozens of people killed in protests.

The Eurasia Group consultancy said that without a definitive timetable for elections or a transitional government, protests could continue: "Although the streets of Tunis are calmer than they have been in several days, Ben Ali's departure is not likely to immediately defuse tension across the country."

British Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said the next 48 hours would be critical "to put together a coalition body which will take us through to what we hope will be free and fair elections".

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who refused permission for Ben Ali to enter former colonial ruler France, has called a meeting about Tunisia with senior ministers. Germany's Angela Merkel urged Tunisia to "seek reconciliation with the protesting people and introduce a true democracy".

"Germany and the European Union stand ready to support you in such a new beginning," she said in a message to Ghannouchi.

Hundreds of European tourists have been stranded by the unrest. British tour operators Thomson and First Choice, owned by Germany's TUI AG, said they planned to bring back all their remaining 1,400 customers in Tunisia on emergency flights.

Thomas Cook said it had operated six flights from Monastir on Friday bringing back 1,500 customers.

Tourism makes 11 per cent of Tunisia's hard currency receipts, as well as being an important sector for employment.

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