TUNIS // The speaker of Tunisia's lower house of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, was sworn in as acting president yesterday after two days of political turmoil.
Mr Mebazaa took over from the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who had assumed power when the president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, resigned on Friday and left the country.
"A unity government is necessary in the greater national interest," Mr Mebazaa said after taking office yesterday, and the country's constitutional council declared that a presidential election should be held in two months' time.
The Arab League called on political forces to unite and bring back peace, and said the events in Tunisia were "historic", while European nations and the United States urged calm.
Authorities declared a state of emergency, with demonstrations banned, a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew and security forces under orders to shoot looters. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were deployed around the capital.
In Monastir in central Tunisia at least 42 prisoners were killed in a fire after an inmate set his mattress alight in a failed attempt to escape.
Smashed windows and burnt electronic appliances were all that remained of one vandalised shop in Tunis city centre, where a knot of men stood yesterday morning swapping rumours amid broken glass and a swirl of uncertainties.
"Ben Ali's thugs did this to give him an excuse to return," said Imad Rouassi, a local merchant, voicing unconfirmed fears. "They want to make it seem like we Tunisians can't govern ourselves."
Mr Ben Ali's departure has raised a host of new worries for Tunisians, from the country's political future to a deterioration in security.
Sporadic gunfire cracked over central Tunis on Friday night and during the day yesterday as looters ransacked shops and burnt the main railway station in defiance of the curfew.
Mr Ben Ali, meanwhile, spent Friday night jetting from country to country in search of refuge. He finally landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after France and Qatar refused to take him in.
The protests began last month in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid after authorities confiscated produce from a poor vegetable-seller, a university graduate, who set himself on fire outside the regional governor's office in response.
While Tunisia's economy has grown in recent years and living standards are often on a par with western Europe, the country has struggled with high unemployment that is worst among young people and in the countryside.
After four weeks of demonstrations and sometimes deadly clashes between protesters and police, Tunisians are still digesting the notion that Mr Ben Ali, who ruled the country since taking power in 1987, is finally gone.
"I feel that Ben Ali's still here, like a phantom," said Ahmed Baraket, a private art teacher who pulled up to the ransacked electronics shop in Tunis on his motorcycle. "His police are still here, and so is his party."
The constitutional court ruling yesterday that Mr Ben Ali had officially resigned makes a comeback all but impossible, but it may not satisfy critics who are equally distrustful of his political machine, the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party.
"Ben Ali, the RCD, they're all the same thing," said Mohamed Maanchi, an electrician drinking his morning coffee in one of the few cafes open in central Tunis yesterday. "I do have some hope in dialogue with the opposition and civil society, though."
Mr Mebazaa now has two months to organise presidential elections. Mr Ghannouchi's task is to propose members of an interim government, and he has expressed willingness so far to engage with opposition parties and civil society.
However, the key to Tunisia's future is the promised elections, said J Scott Carpenter, a Tunisia expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank in the US capital. "They must be legitimate, free and open. Such elections have never taken place in Tunisia before."
That is where outside powers such as the United States and the European Union can play a role by keeping the pressure on Tunis to hold fair elections soon, Mr Carpenter said.
"I'm not even sure the RCD will survive as such, since it was a support structure for Ben Ali," said Amel Boubekeur, a North Africa expert and research fellow at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. "What will survive are people in the government and especially the interior ministry; any solution for Tunisia must take that into account."
Tunisia's vast security apparatus has shown itself a key player in the unfolding drama, as police and soldiers have deployed in Tunis to maintain security following days of peaceful protests, tear gas and reported looting.
A tank commanded the city's main promenade from outside the interior ministry yesterday and soldiers stood beneath the ficus trees, where a day earlier thousands of protesters had cried "Free Free, Tunisia Tunisia, Out Out Ben Ali!" before police charged with tear gas and batons to disperse them.
With Tunisia's future far from certain, a push by security services to clamp down on the streets could carry them into political power, said Ms Boubekeur. "It would be a regime based on security and curfews, which would immobilise civil society and give more power to the military."
At the burnt-out electronics shop in Tunis yesterday morning, Mr Rouassi was in no doubt about what he wanted for his country: "A new government, and democracy!"