Mr. Oui Oui takes charge

In a dramatic turn of events, Mohamed Ghannouchi, Tunisia's prime minister, has just announced that he is temporarily taking control of the country. Details are still murky, and nobody seems to know where President Ben Ali is. Rumor has it that he's fled to France, or Malta under Libyan protection, or that the Army prevented him from escaping.

Ghannouchi put the matter this way: "Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties."

Earlier today, after thousands of protesters surrounded the Interior Ministry and battled security forces in the streets, Ben Ali announced that he had dissolved the government and would hold elections in six months. Then there were rumblings that there would be an announcement on state television, and many assumed that Ben Ali was going to make another speech.

Instead, Ghannouchi, a colorless functionary in his late 60s, showed up, surrounded by two other senior officials, and made his surprising announcement.

This may not solve the crisis. Ghannouchi is not necessarily any more popular than Ben Ali, though he's not nearly as tainted by the lurid tales of corruption and excess that so damaged the ruling family. But Tunisians certainly don't respect the prime minister; they call him "Mr. Oui Oui" because he's always saying yes to Ben Ali.

This is obviously a fast-moving story, and nobody seems to know what's going on with the Tunisian military. The police are much more powerful and numerous, and as of this afternoon there were still reports of gunfire against protesters. But there were also signs that security forces were unwilling to crack down and that may have told Ben Ali that it was time to get out of Dodge.

UPDATE: Here's the BBC's translation of Ghannouchi's full statement:

"Citizens, men and women! In accordance with the provisions of chapter 56 of the constitution, which stipulates that in case of the impossibility of the president to conduct his duties temporarily, he would delegate his prerogatives to the prime minister. Given the difficulty for the president of the republic to carry out his duties temporarily, I will, starting from now, exercise the prerogatives of the president of the republic. I urge all sons and daughters of Tunisia - of all ideological and political persuasions and of all sections and regions - to show the spirit of patriotism and unity in order to enable our country, which is dear to all of us, to overcome this difficult juncture and to ensure its security and stability. While I assume this responsibility, I promise to respect the constitution and to carry out political, economic and social reforms which have been announced. I will do so with perfection and through consultation with all national bodies - including political parties, national organisations and civil society components. May God grant me success!"



Tunisian journalist: 'There will be a military coup'

As I spoke by phone with Taoufik Ben Brik, a Tunisian opposition journalist, just moments ago, the country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, got onto a plane and left the country. "There will be a military coup -- we will see. You will see," Ben Brik told me. "The army has just closed down the airspace in Tunisia, and they are arresting members of the family."

If Twitter is to be believed, Ben Ali really is gone. 

Ben Brik, one of the (now former?) president's most pronounced critics, described the regime as "the worst kind of tyranny -- [running] a police state, a military state, and a surveillance state." Ben Brik himself has been subject to that as a journalist, having been harassed and imprisoned on numerous occasions. "It wasn't just that I was arrested -- I was harassed, me and my family. Google me and you will see how they arrested my child, just 14 years old." Ben Brik was most recently released last April and remains in Tunis, where he is watching the situation unfold on the streets.

What brought the protesters to the streets in the first place was the drive for democracy, a place where freedom was possible -- and normal. And yes, WikiLeaks helped. "WikiLeaks revealed a truth previously unspeakable about the mafia-like state," Ben Brik said.

With the president gone, maybe this really is the first WikiLeaks revolution