The Tunisian Online Revolution*

@hibr.me

By Assaad Thebian

The article was previously published on hibr.me

The “Jasmine Revolution” or “Cactus Revolution” (names of the ongoing Tunisian Revolution) crowns years of efforts by activists. These activists have used social media in order to get their voice out and show the people around the world what is happening in their “green” (Tunisia nickname) home. In May 2010, a huge campaign called “Free From 404” (Internet language for file not found) was carried out in Tunisia. Twitter hashtags, Facebook profile pictures, articles and videos were created to demonstrate the activists’ refusal of censorship.

Mohamed Bouazizi

Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, was selling fruit and vegetables on December 17th in the street to support his family when police stopped him for trading without a license. An altercation followed in which a policeman reportedly slapped him and spat at him. Bouazizi then doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.

His images spread all over the social media in the subsequent hours and triggered a wave of anti-government demonstrations all over Tunisia. His action “was seen as epitomizing the plight of Tunisia’s unemployed – especially the young – and protests, increasingly directed against the repressive regime of now exiled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali”, says Kacem Jlidi, 22, a Tunisian activist. Using Facebook and Twitter, many general strikes and manifestations were organized in the days that followed.

Online Demonstrations

Along with the demonstrations, another major clash was going on, though this time the arena was “online”. “Ammar” (a name which Tunisians gave for the censor) was back in action, shutting down access to many pages, and hacking into Facebook accounts. CNN reports: “The U.S. State Department — in an unusual public criticism of a pro-West Arab government — said last week it was concerned about ‘recent reports that Tunisian ISP providers, at the direction of the government, hacked into the accounts of Tunisian users of American companies including Facebook, and providers of email such as Yahoo and Google, and stealing passwords'”. Kacem adds, “The http mode for Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail was denied exposing online data to risk”.

The defense mechanism of online activists was to fight back and hack into the states’ websites. A group known simply as anonymous claims to have launched successful cyber attacks against various websites associated with the regime, in support of the uprising. The Tech Herald website says: “At this point, several Tunisian government domains have been taken down completely, or have been severely crippled by attacks. Included in the list of targets are pm.gov.tn, rcd.tn, benali.tn, carthage.tn, bvmt.com.tn, and ministeres.tn.”

One of the most credible and frequently updated resources was the Nawaat website (largely in French; www.nawaat.org). Nawaat was covering the news and uploading pictures from all over Tunisian cities. Much of their content was accredited in different world press. Nawaat owner, Sami Ben Gharbeia, is a prominent blogger outcasted from his country due to his political views and lives in exile. Other Tunisian activists who have had previous problems with the state were arrested.

Importance of Social Media

In a poll conducted by Hibr.me, one out of five of the Lebanese have heard about Tunisia events through Facebook. As for the impact of social media and online importance in Tunisia, people should notice President Ben Ali’s last speech. Kacem Jlidi says: “He used the same words as the French general Charles de Gaulle, who led the Free French Forces during World War II and then resigned [from] the presidency following the rejection of his proposed reform of the Senate and local governments in a nationwide referendum, and said: ‘(I understood you…I understood you)’”. Ben Ali said in his speech that he gave direct orders to 1. Stop the shooting, 2. Lower the prices of basic food materials and 3. Lift the ban on the internet!

When Ben Ali fled the country and the new unity government was formed, a major success for online activists was the appointment of Slim Amamou (a prominent blogger and a detainee in the recent events) as the State Secretary for youth and sports. Congratulatory messages and online buzz were online for hours to come. For the first time ever, people were listening to their ministers’ oath via Slims’ tweets. Other voices were calling Slim to resign since the new government was still oppressing street voices. Those voices still refusing the remaining figures of Constitution Democratic Rally that Ben Ali is a member of.

Online activism in past activities

Activists have also been uploading videos of demonstrations to YouTube using the hashtag #sidibouzid (the province where the demonstrations first began last month). Facebook pages such as: “Tunisian News Agency” were the main sources of minute by minute news with live coverage by photos and videos, with thousands joining. On January 6th, Slim Amamou (before he became a State Secretary) and Azyz Amamy (another prominent blogger) were detained. Facebook pages to free them were created and thousands joined. The last interview that Slim did was broadcast on Nawaat, and his last tweets were broadcast and linked to his location (the last tweet was identified by GPS to be a states’ police department). Slim with Yassine Ayari and Lina Ben Mhenni (online activists) signed in May 2010 a petition and handed it to the Ministry of Interior to lift the censorship on the Internet in Tunisia (YouTube for example was banned in November 2007). He was then arrested for 12 hours and forced to broadcast a video calling for the cancellation of a demonstration scheduled to be held 24 hours later.

Lina, a professor at 9th of April university and owner of “Tunisian Girl” blog (www.tunisiangirl.blogspot.com), says: “I participated in most of the demonstrations in the capital, even the protest of the lawyers. In the last ten days of the events, I decided to go to Sidi Bou Zeid to videotape the demonstrations there.” She posted photos of five people she describes as the “martyrs of Erregueb”. In April 2010, in order to silence her and cancel the protest in May against censorship, her parents’ house was robbed, her personal laptop and camera were stolen. Lina’s blog has also been censored since 2008 and the URL change did not help.

Kacem Jlidi says: “As a young person, I was suffocated for the limited liberties and I got tired of being cautious all the time”. For the first time, we are able to mention his name because censorship has been banned and online freedom is, for now, a reality in Tunisia.

2 Comments

Filed under Journalism, North Africa, Politics

2 responses to “The Tunisian Online Revolution*

  1. Ines

    hanks for writing such an insightful article, Assaad. I have a couple of remarks though:

    1- The FF404 campaign started long time before May 2010. You can check with Lina, Yassine & Slim on that since they ar…e its pioneers. Also, you mentioned in your first paragraph that that campaign was against censorship. That was a bit of a general statement since FF404 was only against internet censorship, something that you elaborated more towards the end of your article. I emphasized that because you obviously found out following the Revolution that the whole society was censored, not just the internet.🙂

    2- The fact that you started your article with the 404 campaign made it sound like it was one of the “triggers” for the revolution, while it was not. It was Bouaziz (then Tunisian protesters) who made it happen by burning himself out of frustration: he was a university graduate with no income trying to feed his poor family by selling vegetables, but the policemen did not even respect that. He was one of those young Tunisians suffering poor economic conditions, trying to work it out by any means, but never left alone by the corrupted police.
    I would say that Tunisians who started the fight against the regime following that suffered the same frustration as Bouazizi, and revolted for the same reasons but in a different way (protesting fearless of the police bullets). Then, everyone interfered (political parties, syndicates, etc…) and tried to “re-orient” it or use it up to fulfill special interests.

    3- Social media did spread the Bouazizi images but it was Aljazeera that first broadcast/published them and ensured the daily coverage. I’ve never been fan but I have to say that, without them, I would have never known what was going in the country during that time, and it should be given credit for that.

    4- You article brought up previous New York Times, Time, Le Monde and Guardian articles on the same subject (Social Media & the Tunisian revolution). My stance is still the same. All the attenuations to human rights by the old regime made the headlines and were subject to international criticism (especially in the last 5 years with the SM boom) in the last 23 years. But, censorship in all its aspects continued and all Tunisians felt it in every single aspect of their lives. We did not talk about it out of fear for our families and ourselves, but the whole world knew about it! Did they do anything to help? NOPE!

    It is more or less the same thing with the 2011 revolution. The world knows what is going on (thanks to media in general) but it is only Tunisians living in the Tunisian territory are trying to work it out. Yes, social media did spread the word. But, it did not stop the policemen from killing the civilians who were protesting against ZABA. It did not put pressure on The EU to support Tunisians in their fight against their poor economic conditions (not freedom of speech or associations, as social media has been trying to show it). It did not deprive the US of facilitating ZABA’s departure.

    I really think that it is time to stop bargaining about the amazing role of Social Media in the Tunisian revolution and start writing about the economy that is collapsing and the people who are getting rapidly impoverished; the real people who led the change and were not even aware that facebook exists.

    p.s. Sorry for the grammar/spelling mistakes. I felt so lazy to proofread.🙂

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