In December 2010, a college graduate who worked as a street vendor set himself on fire in the city of Sidi Bouzid to protest unemployment, corruption and the continued police state. A spate of other protests followed and spread throughout the country. As many as 10,000 people took to the streets of Tunis, the capital. President Ben Ali attempted to quell the protests with a promise of new elections—but not until 2014—and the creation of 300,000 jobs, but the demonstrations continued and the police retaliated with live gunfire, batons, and tear gas. As many as 80 protesters died in the violence.
After 23 years in power, Ben Ali stepped down and left the country on January 14, 2011. His resignation only complicated the political unrest in Tunisia. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said he would assume power, but the following day backed down from that plan and set up a unity government with Fouad Mebazaa, speaker of Parliament, as interim president. The opposition rejected the government and continued their protests, saying high-level posts were given to members of Ben Ali"s party, while low-ranking ministries were reserved for the opposition. On Feb. 27, Prime Minister Ghannouchi resigned amid ongoing protests and continued criticism that he was too closely linked to the Ben Ali regime. He was replaced by Beji Caid-Essebsi, a former government minister. He responded to demands of the opposition and lifted the 20-year ban on the main Islamist party and froze the assets of Ben Ali. He did not, however, dissolve Parliament or suspend the constitution.
In June, Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, were found guilty in absentia of corruption and sentenced to 35 years in prison and fined $66 million.