Tunis, Tunisia -- The president of Tunisia landed in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, a day after he fled massive demonstrations calling for his ouster in the northern African country.

A plane carrying President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family landed in Jeddah, where he was welcomed by the Saudi king. The government said the gesture was to support Tunisia.

"The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces that it stands fully by the Tunisian people, wishing, by God will, its people will stand solid to overcome this difficult phase in its history," the Royal Court said in a statement.

Ben Ali's departure -- which came the same day he dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency -- follows widespread outrage over poor living conditions, high unemployment, corruption and repression. Protesters have called for him to step down and held daily demonstrations denouncing his government.

The wave of rallies was sparked by the suicide of an unemployed college graduate, who torched himself last month after police confiscated his fruit cart, cutting off his source of income.

Police fired tear gas and dispersed demonstrators Friday in the capital, Tunis, a show of force that aggravated what had been a peaceful gathering.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced Friday that he has taken over the responsibilities of the president, who had ruled the nation since 1987.

"Considering the fact that at the current time he (Ben Ali) cannot fulfill his duties, I take over today, the powers of the president of the republic," he told Tunisians.

He appealed for calm, and pledged to respect the constitution and carry out political, economic and social reforms.

Ghannouchi asked residents to cooperate with the army, which was ordered to take charge of the streets following a state-of-emergency declaration.

Moving to calm widespread discontent with Ben Ali's government, the prime minister told Arabic-language Al Jazeera Television that "certain measures" had been taken against "corrupt families." He was referring to business owners close to the president.

The president's return to Tunisia "is impossible," Ghannouchi said, adding that he would set a date for new elections after meeting with government officials Saturday.

Meanwhile, the military appeared to be wielding the most power, staking out positions on major streets.

"We hope that the army will match its reputation for being more professional and less trigger-happy than the security forces that have been responsible for much of the violence over the last several weeks," Amnesty International spokesman Claudio Cordone said from London.

Cordone told CNN that 55 people had been killed over the past several weeks of demonstrations. The president had put the number at 21 before his departure.

Tunisia has been a relatively stable and prosperous country in what diplomats call "a rough neighborhood."

Under Ben Ali, it was a pro-Western state supportive of U.S. policy in the Middle East and in its efforts against terrorism.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for free and fair elections and said the United States was monitoring the events.

"We condemn the violence and urge restraint on all sides," she said in a statement.

As the events unfolded in Tunisia, others in the region took note.

In Cairo, Egypt, about dozens of protesters stood outside the Tunisian Embassy and chanted, "Revolution in Tunisia is revolution in Egypt!"

Recent diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia obtained by WikiLeaks revealed growing discontent, especially over nepotism within the government.

WikiLeaks published a 2009 cable recounting a lavish dinner for the U.S. ambassador given by Ben Ali's son-in-law, a prominent businessman. The dinner featured ice cream and frozen yogurt flown in from Saint Tropez, the diplomat said.