16 January 2010 - TUNIS, Tunisia— Looting, deadly prison riots
and street chaos engulfed Tunisia on Saturday,
a day after mass protests forced its strongman
to flee. A new interim president was sworn in,
promising to create a unity government that
could include the long-ignored opposition.
It was the second change of power in this
North African nation in less than 24 hours.
Saturday night appeared calmer than the
previous night, which saw looters empty
shops and torch the capital's main train
station as well as some shops. As military
helicopters patrolled overhead, residents in
some neighborhoods armed themselves with
sticks and clubs, forming impromptu militias
to protect their homes.
The leadership changes then came at a
Ben Ali's longtime ally, Prime Minister
Mohammed Ghannouchi, stepped in briefly
with a vague assumption of power that left
open the possibility that Ben Ali could return. B
ut on Saturday, the head of the Constitutional
Council declared the president's departure
permanent and gave Fouad Mebazaa, leader of
the lower house of parliament, 60 days to
organize new elections.
Hours later, Mebazaa was sworn in.
In his first televised address, the interim
president asked the premier to form a
"national unity government in the country's
best interests" in which all political parties will
be consulted "without exception nor
On the streets, the unrest was frightening.
A fire Saturday at a prison in the
Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed
42 people, coroner Tarek Mghirbi told The
Associated Press. The cause of the fire was Some rioters appeared to be targeting
businesses owned by members of Ben Ali's
family, which had financial interests in a wide
range of sectors, from banking to car
dealerships. In Tunis, a branch of the Zeitouna
bank founded by Ben Ali's son-in-law was
torched, as were vehicles made by Kia, Fiat
and Porsche — carmakers distributed in
Tunisia by members of the ruling family.
Citizens set up barricades
With many shops, markets and bakeries in the
capital shuttered Saturday, some residents
expressed growing worry about getting basic
goods, like bread.
Residents of some Tunis neighborhoods set
up barricades and organized overnight patrols
to deter rioters. In the tony El Menzah
neighborhood, dozens of men and boys
armed with baseball bats and clubs were
taking turns on patrol — just as a broadcast
on Tunisian television had urged citizens to
Public television station TV7 — now known as
Tunisian National Television — broadcast
phone calls from residents on the capital's
outskirts, describing attacks by knife-wielding
Rumors fed off the instability, and some
citizens speculated the marauding gangs were
made up of Ben Ali loyalists bent on sewing
chaos in the country.
The death toll mounted. At least 42 people
were killed Saturday in a prison fire in one
resort town and the director of another prison
in another tourist haven let 1,000 inmates flee
after soldiers shot five dead amid a rebellion.
Those deaths came on top of scores of others
after a month of protests in which police often
fired upon demonstrators.
In Mahdia, further down the coast, inmates set
fire to their mattresses in protest. Soldiers
opened fire, killing five inmates, top local
official said. The director of the prison then let
about 1,000 other inmates flee the prison to
avoid further bloodshed, the official said,
asking not to be identified because of security