President Ben Ali Will Not Return to Power in Tunisia, Official Says

Arab League urges return of calm, calls on Tunisia's political forces reach a 'national consensus on ways to bring the country out of this crisis.'

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Tunisia's president has left power for good, the president of the country's Constitutional Court said Saturday, declaring that the leader of the lower house of parliament will assume power until elections are held in two months.

Tunisian army soldier patrolling in downtown Tunis, January 15, 2011. Credit: Reuters

It was the second time power has changed hands in this North African country in less than 24 hours.

Massive street protests over corruption and unemployment forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country Friday night after 23 years of iron-fisted rule. Saudi King Abdullah's palace confirmed early Saturday that the ousted president and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for "peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia."

When Ben Ali left, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return.

But Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher said Saturday that Ben Ali has permanently vacated his position and lawmaker Fouad Mebazaa has up to 60 days to organize new elections.

Ben Ali's ouster was the key demand of a month of protests that have swept the Mediterranean nation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins.

Also Saturday, the Arab League called for Tunisia's political forces and other groups to keep the peace and lead the North African country out of crisis after the president was swept from power amid widespread protests.

The Arab League called "for all political forces, representatives of Tunisian society and officials to stand together and unite to maintain the achievements of the Tunisian people and realize national peace."

It called for a return to calm and urged the country to reach a "national consensus on ways to bring the country out of this crisis in a way that guarantees respect for the will of the Tunisian people".

While the protests were mostly peaceful, after Ben Ali's departure rioters burned the main train station in the capital of Tunis and looted shops.

An Associated Press photographer saw soldiers intervening Saturday to try to stop looters from sacking a huge supermarket in the Ariana area, 30 kilometers north of the capital. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.

A helicopter circled low over the capital, apparently acting as a spotter for fires or pillaging. Gunfire crackled anew Saturday morning.

Overnight, public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods on the capital's outskirts, recounting attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants.

Ghannouchi - who held power for less than 24 hours - told TV stations overnight that he had ordered the army and other security forces to intervene immediately in those neighborhoods.

There has been no official announcement about Ben Ali's whereabouts in Saudi Arabia, but a source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 310 miles (500 kilometers) south of Jeddah. The source said Ben Ali had been taken there to avoid sparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians
living in the larger, seaside city of Jeddah.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The president's ouster followed the country's largest protests in generations and weeks of escalating unrest, sparked by one man's suicide and fueled by social media, cell phones and young people who have seen relatively little benefit from Tunisia's recent economic growth.

Thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life rejected Ben Ali's belated promises of change and mobbed Tunis, the capital, to demand that he leave.

The government said at least 23 people have been killed in the riots, but opposition members put the death toll at more than three times that.