* 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, 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.
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.