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What if Tunisia had a revolution, but nobody watched?

On December 17, a 26 year old Tunisian man named Mohamed Bouazizi reached the end of his rope. An unemployed university graduate, Bouazizi had become a seller of fruits and vegetables in the southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. When authorities confiscated his wares to punish him for selling without a license, Bouazizi set himself on fire. He died in hospital on January 4, 2011.

Video of protests in Sidi Bouzid on YouTube

Bouazizi’s suicide struck a chord with other frustrated Tunisians. Thousands took to the streets in Sidi Bouzid to protest widespread unemployment, government corruption and lack of opportunity. Another frustrated youth in Sidi Bouzid, Lahseen Naji, killed himself by climbing an electricity pylon while crying out “No for misery, no for unemployment!” before grasping the high voltage line. The Tunisian government responded by sending baton and teargas-wielding reinforcements to the city and by promising future economic development projects. But riots have spread from Sidi Bouzid across the country, and the government has responded by closing the high schools and universities, arresting those they perceive to be ringleaders and imposing a curfew. Global Voices contributor Slim Amamou was one of those arrested on January 6th – we’ve not heard from him or been informed of the charges.

Despite the crackdown, it seems increasingly possible that the Ben Ali government might fall. The New York Times reported that members of Ben Ali’s family have been leaving the country. And it looked like a coup might take place last night, as the army took to the streets of Tunis. Rob Prince of the University of Denver, who is following the situation closely, speculates that the army deployed itself to protect citizens from the security police (who’ve been violently suppressing dissent) not in an attempt to seize power. There’s good reason to believe the Ben Ali government could fall – trade unions and lawyers have both gone on strike in support of the protests, and the situation appears to be rapidly spiraling out of the government’s control.

If you’re in the US, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard what’s going on in Tunisia unless you follow news from North Africa and the Middle East closely. The story of the ongoing protests has received very little media attention. Google Trends (below) shows a spike of attention that’s lower than the attention Tunisia received for losing to Ukraine in the first round of the 2006 World Cup.

One explanation is that the tragic shooting in Tucson has (understandably) captured the US’s attention at present and that the Christmas and New Years’ holidays prevented the early chapters of the story from gaining attention. (Below, a comparison of news and search volumes for “Tunisia” and “Tucson”.)

I think there’s more to the disparity than that. Tunisia is a deeply authoritarian state, but it’s one that’s masterful at public relations. Despite being an aggressive censor of the internet, Tunisia was chosen to host the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005, apparently convincing the rest of the world that they’d use the opportunity to loosen the restrictions on online and offline speech that keep Tunisian opposition groups in check.

Global Voices attended the summit with the support of Dutch foundation Hivos, and we ran a workshop titled “Expression Under Repression” – the Tunisian government removed our workshop from the program, chained the doors of the room where we were to meet and relented only when the Dutch government threatened a diplomatic incident if we weren’t allowed to speak. When we convened, Tunisian security police flooded into the room and began photographing and videotaping the attendees, a technique designed to intimidate anyone brave enough to attend our session. (They also ate all our cookies.) When I led a workshop on internet security, a senior member of the intelligence services introduced himself to me and sat in the front row, taking copious notes, while his associates confiscated the open source software we were attempting to distribute to attendees. Some of the people who met with our team were later detained by authorities. It was a memorable introduction to a country that maintains a network of secret prisons, controls the press and the NGO community and systematically suppresses dissent, all while managing to maintain an image as a comfortable tourist destination and a (sometimes) cooperative partner in US anti-terror efforts. (Some notes from my Tunisian trip in 2005 here and here.)

Tunisia was widely praised for its successful hosting of the summit and the ITU’s organizers deflected questions about whether the event would have any lasting change on the restrictive media environment in the country. And the country often gets a free pass on human rights issues from business leaders and governments who praise the social stability of the Ali government and the concomitant business opportunities.

What’s fascinating to me is that the events of the past three weeks in Tunisia might actually represent a “Twitter revolution”, as has been previously promised in Moldova and in Iran. There’s been virtually no coverage of the riots and protests in the thoroughly compromised local media – to understand what’s going on in their country, many Tunisians are turning to YouTube and DailyMotion videos, to blogs, Twitter and especially Facebook. The government hasn’t made it easy to access these sites – not only are several social media platforms blocked, they appear to be conducting phishing attacks on users of Gmail, Facebook and other online services. (Slim Amamou reported on this issue for Global Voices Advocacy in July of 2010 – others have picked up the story more recently, as it developed a Wikileaks/Anonymous connection…)

So why isn’t the global twittersphere flooding the internet with cries of “Yezzi Fock!” (the rallying cry of the movement, which translates as “We’ve had enough!” in local slang)? Perhaps we’re less interested because the government in danger of falling isn’t communist, as in Moldova, or a nuclear arm seeking (perhaps) member of the “Axis of Evil”, Iran? Perhaps everyone’s read Evgeny Morozov’s new book and followed his path from celebrating the Moldova twitter revolution to concluding the internet is most useful for dictators, not for revolutionaries? (I recommend Zeynep Tufekci’s thoughtful review of the book.)

My hope is that we’re getting collectively smarter about concluding that social media will or won’t act as a catalyst for social change. There are complex economic forces at work in Tunisia – a demographic bulge, increasing economic inequality, a reduction in government subsidies, shrinkage in the tourism and textile sectors. Was social media the catalyst that helped frustration turn into protest, or helped protest spread from one corner of the country to another? It’s the kind of question that keeps scholars busy for years, as my colleague Henry Farrell wisely noted in a reaction to Malcolm Gladwell’s dismissal of the power of social media for protest. In the case of Tunisia, we need to understand whether information about the protests in Sidi Bouzid helped convince other Tunisians to take to the streets, and to understand how that information reached them – I’m far from ready to declare this a victory for social media, but I’m looking forward to studying it and understanding it better.

What’s frustrating is that there are ways we know social media could be helpful to those people in Tunisia who are trying to overthrow 23 years of dictatorial rule. Tunisia relies on relationships with Europe and the US to maintain its economy, which is one of the reasons Ben Ali has so carefully build an internal and externally-focused propaganda machine. If more people in the US were paying attention to the protests, perhaps Secretary Clinton wouldn’t get away with declaring – absurdly – that Washington won’t take sides in the conflict, but hopes for “a peaceful solution”.

Not everyone is ignoring the events in Tunisia. My friend and colleague Sami ben Gharbia has been exiled from his homeland for years, but is covering the protests with great intensity on his personal blog and on groupblog Nawaat.org, where content is in a mix of Arabic, French and English. Global Voices has a special coverage section with links to all the stories we’ve run on the events. Andy Carvin, social media strategist for NPR, has been aggregating a great deal of news and asking for help in translating from Arabic via Twitter – his Twitter feed is extremely useful. Jillian York – who’s written movingly about her frustration that Tunisia isn’t getting more coverage, recommends Brian Whitaker’s blog, which is tracking events closely. Tom Trewinnard is trying to translate #SidiBouzid tweets from Arabic to English using curated.by, and the folks at Meedan are translating as well, using a mix of machine translation and human correction. Al Jazeera English is covering the story in great detail and mapping where protests are taking place. PRI’s The World has an interview with Slim Amamou and several Tunisia focused stories. Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel has in depth coverage as well. I hope people will keep pointing me to great online and offline coverage, but I think these laudable examples don’t change my core argument that Tunisia is getting far less attention than other “revolutions” like Iran.

I don’t know whether most people are missing the events in Tunisia because they don’t speak French or Arabic, because they don’t see the Mahgreb as significant as Iran, because they’re tired of social media revolution stories or because they’re mourning the tragedy in Tucson. I’m disappointed and frustrated, not just because I care deeply for Tunisian friends who have been working for justice in their country for years, but because real change in the world is a rare thing, and it’s a shame that people would miss the chance to watch it unfold.

61 thoughts on “What if Tunisia had a revolution, but nobody watched?”

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  2. The great relevance of certain papers is also revealed over time. Your post Ethan did not need much time for that. It was very nice to read you again a couple of months after January 14th. Thank you my friend for all your contributions to a better world where the common values ​​that unite us triumph.


  3. Astrubal, thank you for the very kind words. I continue to be amazed that the hard work people like you and Sami did for so many years had an effect so rapidly. It’s important everyone remember that Tunisia did not become free overnight – Tunisians struggled for decades before the events of this past year made it possible to be free. Thanks for your words and for all the work you and others have done over many years to ensure a free, democratic Tunisia.

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