Tunisia grapples with looting, new leader sworn in

At least 42 inmates were killed in two prison fires today, looters emptied shops and torched the main train station and gunfire echoed through the capital.

The interim president -- Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of parliament -- ordered the creation of a unity government that could include the opposition, which had been ignored under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23 years of autocratic rule.

Ben Ali fled the country yesterday for Saudi Arabia following a popular uprising and deadly riots.

Anger over corruption and a lack of jobs and civil liberties ignited a month of protests, but Ben Ali's departure -- a key demand of demonstrators -- did not quell the unrest.
While the protests were mostly peaceful, after Ben Ali's departure rioters burned the main train station in Tunis and looted shops.

Mebazaa, in his first move after being sworn in, seemed intent on reconciliation and calming tensions. In his first televised address, he said he 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 exclusion".

The leadership changes came at a dizzying speed. Ben Ali left abruptly last night and his longtime ally, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly then with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return.

But today, Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the president's departure was permanent and gave lawmaker Mebazaa 60 days in which to organise new elections. Hours later, Mebazaa was sworn in.

It was unclear who might emerge as the main candidates in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia: The autocratic leader has utterly dominated politics for decades, placing his men in positions of power and sending opponents to jail or into exile.

It was also not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaa would go to invite the opposition into the government. He is a political veteran who has been part of the ruling apparatus for years, including leading parliament for two decades.

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. For ordinary people, the unrest that followed his departure was frightening.

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