TUNIS // Machine-gun fire rattled over the centre of the Tunisian capital yesterday evening as security forces struggled to maintain order two days after former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's sudden ousting put the country into political crisis.
Yesterday afternoon the country's prime minister, Mohamemd Ghannouchim met opposition party leaders and members of civil-society organisations for talks on forming a national unity government that will steer the country to presidential elections expected in six months.
Tunisians hope that those elections will help turn a page of history, bringing democratic rule to a country that has known only two leaders since independence from its former coloniser, France, in 1956.
For those elections to succeed, the government must first put an end to looting and reported shootings that have plagued the country since Friday, said one western diplomat.
A new president must in turn solve economic woes that set the stage for Mr Ben Ali's departure.
Steady growth in Tunisia and living standards often on par with western Europe have masked 14 per cent unemployment that is widely believed to reach double that number among young people and in rural areas.
A wave of protests over unemployment and corruption was triggered last month after authorities in the town of Sidi Bouzid confiscated the produce of a poor vegetable-seller, prompting him to set himself on fire outside the regional governor's office.
Last Friday those protests swelled to calls for Mr Ben Ali to step down immediately, with thousands gathered outside the interior ministry before police charged with tear-gas and batons to disperse them.
On Friday evening Mr Ben Ali abruptly fed the country and has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the presidency passed briefly to Mr Ghannoushi before Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, was named interim president after a constitutional court ruled that Mr Ben Ali had definitively resigned.
Meanwhile, soldiers backed by tanks have deployed along Tunis's main promenade and at key intersections around the city, stopping and searching some cars.
It remains unclear who is behind the nightly violence that has left the capital scarred with burnt-out shops after nights crackling with sporadic gunshots. However, many locals speculate that hard-line supporters of Mr Ben Ali have played a role.
The Tunis city centre was locked down by security forces yesterday evening, with civilians confined to hotels as gunfire rattled in the street after unconfirmed reports of snipers in the area.
In some parts of the city and its suburbs, local residents armed with wooden staves, metal bars and knives have organised neighbourhood watches to fill the gap they say is left by overstretched army and police.
"I haven't opened my shop in three days, and I've stayed up every night keeping watch," said Kamel Ben Salah, a clothing merchant in the working-class quarter of Bab Souika. "We haven't had any violence, but we don't have any food either since delivery people are afraid to move around the city."
Nearby, hundreds of people were massed outside a bakery, banging on the shutters and clamouring for bread. A few lonely baguettes emerged from a window and hands shot up to snatch them.
"No bread for days, and no milk, bottled water, fruits, vegetables, or chicken either," said Khariya, a shared-taxi driver watching the scene from her balcony and who declined to give her surname. "We need security. And then we need a president willing to step down after one five-year term."