Last Updated: Fri Jan 14, 2011 23:43 pm (KSA) 20:43 pm (GMT)

France says did not receive Ben Ali asylum request

The 74-year-old leader came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987 (File)
The 74-year-old leader came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987 (File)

France has received no request for asylum from departing Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and would consult Tunisia's "constitutional authorities" if it did, the foreign ministry said late on Friday.

The French ministry made the statement as Ben Ali was thought to be flying somewhere between his homeland -- which he had fled earlier in the day -- and Europe, and amid rumors that he might head for Paris.

"France has received no request to welcome Mr Ben Ali. If such a request was made France would make its response in agreement with the constitutional Tunisian authorities," it said.

France had earlier "taken note" of the change of leadership in Tunisia, where Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he had taken over as interim head of state amid violent protests against Ben Ali's rule.

Tunisia's private Nessma television station, meanwhile, reported that several relatives of ex-president Ben Ali had been arrested, as the whereabouts of the departing president was unknown.

The station said in a message flashed up on screen that those arrested included Ben Ali's son-in-law Sakher Materi, one of Tunisia's most prominent businessmen.

But an aide to Materi denied the reports of his arrest and said that he is in Dubai.

"He has been in Dubai since midday today," the aide, who did not want to be named, told Reuters after he said he telephoned Materi to check his whereabouts.

Violent anti-government protests drove Ben Ali from power Friday after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, as anger over soaring unemployment and corruption spilled into the streets.

Ghannouchi's takeover

Thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life mobbed the capital of Tunis to demand Ben Ali's ouster, the culmination of weeks of protests that have swept the country. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to announce that he is assuming power in this North African nation known for its wide sandy beaches and ancient ruins.

The shakeup was certain to have repercussions in the Arab world and beyond - as a sign that even a leader as entrenched and powerful as Ben Ali could be brought down by massive public outrage.

The president tried vainly to hold onto power amid the riots, declaring a state of emergency Friday, dissolving the government and promising new legislative elections within six months. On Thursday night he went on television to promise not to run for re-election in 2014 and slashed prices on key foods such as sugar, bread and milk.

Yet Friday produced the largest demonstrations in generations. Police repeatedly clashed with protesters, some of whom climbed the walls of the dreaded Interior Ministry, site of torture reports for years. Clouds of tear gas and black smoke hung over the city's whitewashed buildings and tour operators hurriedly evacuated thousands of tourists.

His whereabouts were not known and the details about his removal from power were unclear. The prime minister did not say anything about a coup or about the army being in charge, saying only that he was taking over while the president is "temporarily indisposed."

The 74-year-old leader came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987. He took over from a man called formally President-for-Life - Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after independence from France in 1956.

Ben Ali removed Bourguiba from office for "incompetence," saying he had become too old, senile and sick to rule. Ben Ali promised then that his leadership would "open the horizons to a truly democratic and evolved political life."

But after a brief period of reforms early on, Tunisia's political evolution stopped.

A "police state"

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have called Tunisia a "police state" and described the corruption there, saying Ben Ali had lost touch with his people. Social networks like Facebook helped spread the comments to the delight of ordinary Tunisians, who have complained about the same issues for years.

Under Ben Ali, most opposition parties were illegal. Amnesty International said authorities infiltrated human rights groups and harassed dissenters. Reporters Without Borders described Ben Ali as a "press predator" who controlled the media.

He consistently won elections with overwhelmingly questionable scores: In 2009, he was re-elected for a fifth five-year term with 89 percent of the vote. Beforehand, he had warned opponents they would face legal retaliation if they questioned the vote's fairness.

Ghannouchi, 69, is a trained economist who has been a longtime close ally of Ben Ali. Prime minister since 1999, he is one of the best-known faces of Tunisia's government. He also has served as the country's minister for international cooperation and its minister of foreign investment.

The riots started after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide in mid-December when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused generalized anger against the regime into a widespread, outright revolt.

The state of emergency remained in effect after the prime minister's announcement, and the streets of central Tunis fell mostly quiet after a day of rioting and volleys of tear gas.

The change of power in Tunisia is unprecedented in the modern Arab world.

In Sudan in 1985, a collapsing economy and other grievances sparked a popular uprising, although the government was eventually ousted by a military coup.

However, the closest parallel in the broader Middle East comes from Iran - which is not an Arab nation - where mass demonstrations helped topple the Shah and usher in the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

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