After thousands of demonstrators marched through the Tunisian capital of Tunis to demand the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Friday, the autocratic leader has decided to dismiss his government.
The iron-fisted president, who has been in power for 23 years, also said he would call early legislative elections in six months, The Associated Press reports.
The people of Tunisia have enjoyed relative prosperity since Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987: Tunis, the North African city on the Mediterranean known for its beaches and ancient ruins, is a thriving tourist attraction. Until recently, Tunisians have tolerated the autocratic government in exchange for political stability and peace.
But simmering frustrations over high unemployment and reports of government corruption have erupted in violence in recent weeks. 23 people have been killed in the demonstrations, which began in mid-December – and that’s just the official death toll, opposition figures say. It’s likely that dozens more have been killed.
In an attempt to placate demonstrators, Ben Ali went on television Thursday, promising freedom of the press and political transparency. He also said he would resign when his term ends in 2014, and ordered price cuts on foodstuffs.
After his speech, thousands held a rally in support of the ruler on the main drag of Avenue Bourguiba, chanting, “Long live Ben Ali!”, AP reports. Some say the event was staged by the powerful ruling RCD party.
Regardless, the speech did not seem to appease the majority of demonstrators, who turned out for a massive riot Friday. Ben Ali’s regime fired rounds of tear gas at thousands of protesters in the center of the capital.
Ben Ali has declared a state of emergency as violence continues to escalate, AP said.