"On January 14, 2011, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali fled the country after several weeks of increasingly violent protests. The protests initially seemed to stem from discontent related to high unemployment, but eventually spiraled into an unprecedented national challenge to Ben Ali's authoritarian regime. As of January 15, the speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, has assumed the role of interim president, in line with constitutional prerogatives. On January 17, a 'unity' cabinet was formed, which includes three leaders of officially sanctioned opposition parties. Ruling party figures have nonetheless retained control of key posts, while members of banned Islamist and leftist political movements have not been invited to participate. Tunisian authorities have promised political reforms and elections within 60 days. However, the impact of recent developments is difficult to predict. Violence between protesters, security forces, and unidentified gunmen persisted in urban centers as of January 17. The political shifts of recent weeks have been accompanied by speculation over the views and roles of Tunisia's security forces, portions of which orchestrated the crackdown on demonstrations while others appear to have influenced Ben Ali's decision to resign. Prior to the December-January protests, Tunisia had been seen as a stable, autocratic government since its independence from France in 1956. Ben Ali, who was in power for 23 years, was elected for a fifth term in October 2009 in an election widely seen as flawed and boycotted by leading opposition parties. His Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party exerted strong control over parliament, state and local governments, and most political activity. The government cultivated strong ties with France and the European Union, its largest trading partner. Tunisia is a non-oil-exporting, middle-income country with a growing economy but high unemployment"
CRS Report for Congress, RS21666
U.S. Department of State: http://www.state.gov/