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Massive Protests in Tunisia Push President to Flee

January 14, 2011 at 4:57 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The government of Tunisia unraveled today, as a state of emergency was declared in that North African nation.

Protesters took to the streets demanding democratic elections. The president’s whereabouts were unknown, and the prime minister assumed power for now.

Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News has this report.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Outside Tunisia’s Interior Ministry, a vast crowd gathered in scenes which will send shockwaves across the Arab world, thousands of people yelling for revolution after 23 years of being ruled by the same man.

At first, the police held back, under orders not to shoot from Tunisia’s president. A few demonstrators chanced their luck and climbed on top of the ministry’s doors. “We come in peace; don’t kill us,” their banner said.

And all around us, the extraordinary sight of a people deprived of democracy for decades now intoxicated by the sweet smell of freedom in the air.

MAN: Everybody around is so happy, and it’s unbelievable.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: What do you want the president to do?

WOMAN: I want him to quit.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: You want the president to quit?

WOMAN: Yes, because we don’t believe him when he say that he will bring us democracy and all this. I think it’s all lies. And I think the best thing for him is to change or to go out.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: What has he done wrong, the president?

MAN: The president is a killer.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: He’s a killer?

MAN: He kills tons of Tunisian people.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Who can take over in Tunisia? Who can be the…

MAN: Look around you. Look around you. There is a lot of people who can take over.

WOMAN: There is many people.

MAN: We are responsible. We are educated. We have — we can take care of ourselves.

WOMAN: And this is historical, what’s going on right now. I mean, this is absolutely incredible. And for to us witness this and participate in it, it is incredible.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Tunisians watched from roofs and ornate colonial balconies as people power confronted the police state.

Then, a van drove past carrying the body of one protester killed yesterday. The crowd roared in anger. And the police responded with tear gas. The people ran for the safety of the back streets, shouting the president’s name and calling him an assassin. Later, we discovered that we had left behind us one man who could not escape.

There’s extraordinary anger here mixing with the smell of tear gas. Either this is the first Arab revolution of the 21st century, or it will be brutally suppressed.

It’s been a violent few weeks here, with scores of Tunisians believed to have been shot dead by the security forces — mounting anger on the streets forcing the president to dismiss his entire government tonight and call elections three years early.

Then, a news reader announced a nationwide state of emergency, with no public gathering of more than three people allowed, he said. Another development: The prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, announced that, for the time being, he is president and that he will restore the dignity of the state.

It’s been a remarkable day here. And nobody knows what will happen next — a day which has witnessed a lesson in people power from the Arab world.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff has more.