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Tunisians confront new worries as protests oust president

After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, the president of Tunisia was driven from power Friday by violent protests over soaring unemployment and corruption.

The ouster, virtually unprecedented in modern Arab history, sent an ominous message to authoritarian governments that dominate the region: Even strongmen can be overthrown by the power of street protests.

Tunisians buoyant over Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's ouster immediately worried about what's next: the caretaker leadership of the prime minister who took control, the role of the army in the transition and whether Ben Ali's departure to Saudi Arabia will be enough to restore calm.

The upheaval 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 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.

Friday, police repeatedly clashed with protesters, some of whom climbed onto the entrance roof of the Interior Ministry, widely believed for years to be a place where the regime's opponents were tortured.

With clouds of tear gas and black smoke drifting over the city, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to announce that he was assuming power in this North African nation known for its wide sandy beaches and ancient ruins.

"I take over the responsibilities temporarily of the leadership of the country at this difficult time to help restore security," Ghannouchi said. "I promise to respect the constitution, to work on reforming economic and social issues with care and to consult with all sides."

The prime minister, a longtime ally of the president, suggested that Ben Ali had willingly handed over control, but the exact circumstances were unclear.

In a string of last-ditch efforts to tamp down the unrest, Ben Ali dissolved the government and promised legislative elections within six months -- a pledge that appeared to open at least the possibility of a new government. Before his removal from power was announced, he declared a state of emergency, including a curfew that was in effect Friday night and was to be lifted at 7 a.m. today.

European tour companies moved thousands of tourists out of the country. Foreign airlines halted service to Tunisia.

Ben Ali's downfall sent a potentially frightening message to autocratic leaders across the Arab world, especially because he did not seem especially vulnerable until very recently.

He managed the economy of his small country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern nations grappling with calcified economies and booming, young populations. He turned Tunisia into a beach haven for tourists, helping create an area of stability in volatile North Africa. Despite a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, many enjoyed a better quality of life than those in neighboring countries such as Algeria and Libya.

Ben Ali had won frequent praise from abroad for presiding over reforms to make the economy more competitive and attract business. Growth last year was at 3.1 percent.

But unemployment -- officially measured at 14 percent -- was far higher -- 52 percent -- among the young. Despair among job-seeking young graduates was palpable.

The riots erupted 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.

President Obama said he applauded the courage and dignity of protesting Tunisians, and urged all parties to keep calm and avoid violence.

Arabs across the region celebrated news of the Tunisian uprising on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Thousands of tweets congratulating the Tunisian people flooded the Internet, and many people changed their profile pictures to Tunisian flags.

Egyptian activists opposed to President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade regime looked to the events in Tunisia with hope. About 50 gathered outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo to celebrate, chanting, "Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too!"

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