Tunisia's president flees amid rioting (VIDEO)


Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has left the country amid the worst unrest there in decades, according to reports.

Ben Ali flew to France, but was refused asylum by the French government, according to GlobalPost correspondent Ben Barnier in Paris. French authorities refused to let Ben Ali land on their soil, according to the French daily Le Monde. French president Nicolas Sarkozy himself refused to host Ben Ali, according to reports on the French television station I-tele.

Now it is reported that Ben Ali and his family have gone to Saudi Arabia.

There is speculation that Sarkozy's decision was motivated by a fear to upset France's large Tunisian community — Tunisia was a French protectorate from 1881 to 1956. Since its independence, Tunisia has only had two presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, and French political leaders have long had close relations with Ben Ali.

The French Foreign Affairs ministry said in statement that it has not received any request to host Ben Ali, and that if it does, it will advise according to the constitutional agreements between France and Tunisia.

On a day of violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flew to Paris, leaving Mohammed Ghannouchi, the Tunisian prime minister, as the interim president, Al-Jazeera reported. 

Ben Ali on Friday declared a state of emergency, a day after dismissing his cabinet. His announcement that he would not run for re-election in 2014 prompted celebrations on the streets of the capital Tunis.

In what's being viewed as a worrying sign for repressive leaders of Arab states in the region, demonstrators unhappy with the country's high unemployment, food prices and corruption have taken to the streets.

GlobalPost correspondent Jon Jensen said in Cairo that Egyptians are watching events in Tunisia with great interest because Egypt has many of the same conditions. (See video interview below).

The president of 23 years also promised elections within six months, and in an apparent bid to appease protesters vowed to cut prices of basic foodstuffs, lift censorship and ensure that police did not use live ammunition except in self-defense.

But riots still broke out Friday on the streets of Tunis, and police fired tear gas grenades at protesters in response. Gunshots were heard near a protest outside the interior ministry building, according to Reuters.

A show of force by baton-wielding police officers earlier Friday aggravated a peaceful gathering in the capital. Security forces were reportedly seen beating protesters.

Demonstrators in the Moroccan capital held a sit-in yesterday afternoon in front of the Tunisian embassy in Rabat despite efforts from the authorities to stop them. 

Tunisian officials said the reason for the emergency declaration is to protect Tunisians and their private property. People are not allowed on the street from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.

People gathering in groups of three or more will be arrested, and they will be fired on if they try to run away and can't be stopped, CNN reported. Ben Ali, however, said he had given orders to security forces not to use live ammunition "unless someone uses his weapon and forces you to defend yourself."

Ben Ali addressed the crisis on national TV Thursday night as a message purportedly from an Al Qaeda affiliate announced its support of protesters.

"Enough violence," Ben Ali said after days of riots that have killed at least 21 people. Riots earlier in the week led the government to close high schools and universities.

Instability in the North African country is being viewed as a red flag for governments across the region that rely on suppression to maintain order.

"Arab columnists and TV shows have been excitedly debating the real causes of the protests and what they might mean, while in country after country warnings are being sounded of a repeat of the 'Tunisia scenario,'" wrote Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy.

Moroccans sympathetic to the Tunisians' cause attempted this week to show their solidarity.

A reporter for GlobalPost in the Moroccan capital Rabat, Aida Alami, wrote: "The Moroccan Coordination in Support of Tunisian Democrats had tried on Monday to organize a demonstration in support of the Tunisian people but were quickly evacuated by the police. Reports say that Thursday's demonstration did not go a smoothly as wished by the organizers and many altercations occurred between police and protesters."