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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?”

  1. Pingback: Jillian C. York » Letters from Tunisia

  2. Ethan, I think this is spot on.

    Problematically, the situation is inextricably tangled: State–and some of the projects it funds–aren’t doing much to help Tunisians get around the censorship and phishing attempts, thus many are restricted from sharing their thoughts, videos, and photos with the world. As a result, the output from Tunisia is sparse at best, and as you note, that affects the level of attention paid to Tunisia by the media (and perhaps the people).

    Hopefully, you blogging this made a few more people aware of what’s happening.

  3. Nice analysis, but the author is probably more interested in the effect social media has on people than anything else.
    Otherwise MR. Zuckerman and to bring you more information about the same social media sphere, there is a facebook page that is getting a very high following these days and that was opened recently after Clinton’s comment about not taking sides, the translated title from Arabic says: ” France and USA, mind your own business this is OUR fight, why do you have to mingle yet again! ” ( a rough translation that is).

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  6. Ethan,

    Thank you for your nuanced analysis of an issue that’s caused a lot of grief for me and my fellow countrymen. As a Tunisian expat whose wrestled with this issue, the only solace I’ve found is that the lack of foreign coverage – and related lack of condemnation from Tunisia’s strategic partners such as France and the US – help to undermine Ben Ali’s claim that this revolution is financed and fueled by foreign elements.

    In a way, the more Tunisians make progress in bringing change to our country without the support of foreigners, the more we can take ownership in the progress we’ve achieved, and hopefully the more we will hold accountable whoever steps into power next.

    That said, I have the luxury experiencing the revolution many miles away from the comfort of my home, so my views may not be at all representative of those actually fighting the good fight. Either way, thanks again for your analysis, and godspeed to our brothers and sisters who are fighting for their freedom.

  7. Heres the reason no one cares…. in a joke:

    Bin Ladin was recorded lately calling the Hamas leader Mashal in Syria:

    “Brother – I have risked my life to call you. I have a burning question that keeps me from my sleep”

    “Go ahead Osama – I will try to answer!”

    “Well, you guys kill civilians, and I kill civilians… so why is it you guys get great press
    and demonstrations from silly westerners, while I am hunted down and move from hole to retched hole?”

    “Oh – that… this is simple to answer: I only kill Jews!”

  8. Check out “The World” which is a radio program (and website, podcast, etc) which has had very extensive coverage of Tunisia. It can be found on the PRI website: http://www.pri.org/theworld. In particular, the “Tech” section has exhaustive coverage (and Clark Boyd has been following this for a long time).

    This is not being ignored by the world, and is getting attention from people worldwide who value the free exchange of information (and appreciate the openness of the WWW).

  9. Pingback: Yezzi Fock « zunguzungu

  10. Pingback: Tunisia’s Cyberwar: Under The Radar — Securing Our eCity - Blog

  11. Well said. Enduring America is another site that’s had some excellent coverage of Tunisia, including videos and reprinting Brian Whitaker’s critique of Western media coverage.

    In terms of the social media aspects, as you say it’s still an open question about the role Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and YouTube have had within Tunisia, but once again — as with Moldova and Iran — they’re crucial channels for getting word out of the country and connecting people who are following it internationally. Rather than the blanket utopianism vs. futility arguments, I hope discussions start to focus on ways in which social media can be a force for freedom.

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  13. One small but important factual correction: Iran is not a “nuclear-armed member of the Axis of Evil”. Sources differ on the extent and purpose of the Iranian nuclear program and whether or not they are even pursuing nuclear weapons (Iran maintains they are not, others are justifiably skeptical). To date, all public sources agree that Iran is years away at least from producing a nuclear device, much less anything that could be used as a weapon.

    I realize this one item does not detract from your argument, but I think it’s worth baing accurate in describing nuclear proliferation issues.

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  15. Outstanding post…No easy answers here, I think, but great analysis.

    One thing I’d like to see you address: Why does it matter to me (or someone in the U.S.) if I hear about events like those in Tunisia? I think it does matter, by the way.

    But that’s not self evident to everyone…Is it that without strong grassroots pressure, our government is unlikely to take appropriate action? Or something else in your view?

    I do think it’s clear to most folks why this would matter to folks on the ground in Tunisia, btw.

  16. Chris, that’s exactly the right challenge – it’s a good pushback on virtually all the work I do. Some quick responses regarding this specific situation:

    – For US citizens… our government, for better or worse, is committed to a policy of exporting democratic change. That policy has had very mixed results in Iraq, tragic results in Afghanistan, and is inconsistently applied on a global scale, particularly in the Middle East. Tunisia is a very useful counterweight to some of these arguments about change – this change appears to be coming with no change in US pressure, but a set of circumstances on the ground leading to a major citizen movement, and, as such, is an instructive counterexample.

    – For anyone who thinks the internet and social networks can be used for productive societal change, this is an interesting case study. Because media inside Tunisia is weak and state controlled, social media’s been a major vector for protest info. It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that this is one of the better examples of how social media helps mobilize inside and outside a country. It’s worth study to see what’s replicable.

    – There are a whole lot of countries like Tunisia – poor, growing, on the periphery of global markets, seeking progress through a combination of authoritarianism and economic growth. When the economic growth part of the equation slowed, Tunisians got angry. This could be a useful precursor for similar uprisings in other nations, and is worth understanding for anyone who cares about understanding foreign policy as a whole.

    For those who don’t care about foreign policy, social media, activism… this probably isn’t a hugely important story to you. But then again, if those aren’t issues you care about, you’re hardly likely to be reading my blog, are you?

  17. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Brock’s insights on the Tunisia media attention disparity

  18. Ethan:

    Good addition, and I agree with all the points in your comments. I figured you’d be more articulate on that point than I could be.

    I continue to be particularly intrigued by point two: the social media case study. I remember being at MIT when it was such a hot topic around the Iranian conflict. The lack of mainstream coverage is sad, but not entirely surprising and with lots of precedent.

    But the fickleness of social media seems to be a new and harder trend to completely understand.

    Now you’ve got me thinking about another column. Hmmm.

  19. Pingback: « Tunisians revolt Outpost19

  20. Pingback: The Social Media Revolution Nobody Watched | eVentures in Cyberland

  21. Well Ethan, the revolution came. Not too sure about the outcome, but I believe revolutions & evolution do not care about MainStreamMedia anymore. Tunisia pretty much proves that. (which is an excellent thing! Finally no more big media-outlets needed. )

  22. Insightful analysis. Spot on: what is the place of social media in social change. I would like to hear more what you think about this.

  23. Please check the facts before making such statements; “to understand what’s going on in their country, many Tunisians are turning to YouTube and DailyMotion videos,”. Both YouTube and DailyMotion are banned in Tunisia for years. They were made unblocked the night Ben Ali tempted desperately to save himself and his seat by declaring free access to the Internet in his speech of Jan 13. The revolution came from Tunisian People, those in the STREETS, not those sitting behind their screens…

  24. 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….

    Social media was there when Ben Ali had the “perfect” presidential campaign a month ago (which he won overwhelmingly). So there is a huge limit to the effects of social media in places like Tunisia. A more interesting test for social media would be the role it will play in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s ouster. Can social media in Tunisia lead to a better understanding of its constitution? Real elections? Real transfer of power?

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  27. Ilhem, of course I know YouTube and DailyMotion are blocked – I work on Global Voices Advocacy which has documented the censorship of both platforms. But there are also many people in Tunisia who are using tools to go around the firewall. And Facebook remained unblocked through the protests. I agree with your general point – and Khaled’s point – that social media isn’t the key factor here. I’ve been arguing quite fiercely with people who are claiming that Twitter or Wikileaks were the key factor in the revolution – you might look at the piece I wrote in Foreign Policy: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/14/the_first_twitter_revolution

    I look forward to more accounts from friends in Tunisia and the diaspora about what role – minor or otherwise – social media played. And I wholehearedly agree – the respect and credit goes to the Tunisian people who were brave enough to take to the streets and fight for their freedoms.

  28. I’m glad more and more people are taking the time to report on these types of issues, especially because in Latin America we have other problems going on and our media is a lot more biased than probably the US or even Europe.

    I live in Peru, and although we have probably suffered some of the sames problems that Tunisians have gone through, our revolts/protests/riots have never been or demonstrated such powerful effects in the 20th and 21st century.

    Don’t get frustrated… As long as there are a few aware of what’s going on in places that are so far away from us, some others will start join and expand our own little “trend”. Besides, our online publications will remain for history’s future judgment of what really happens when the people get the power back in their hands.

  29. Pingback: Did the fax machine cause the Tunisian uprising? | rasmuskleisnielsen.net

  30. Europe is definately watching for several reasons, not least of all that Tunisia is a favorite cheap vacation spot for Europeans (esp. the Germans and the French) and European tour operators and governments are urgently trying to evacuate thousands of its citizens out of the country (quietly___ shhh, don’t make any noise).

    It will be interesting to see how European leaders handle this latest political/economic crisis right at their southern doorstep__ especially the former colonial masters in Paris and the new EU President and EU Foreign Minister based in Brussels. Of course there is also the “solidarity with the Tunisian people” angle but that is coming across on the German TV news and in the press as insincere and way too late. What is surprising about the Tunisian uprising is that so many foreign policy experts and capitals around the globe were caught off guard___ nobody saw it coming except for the Tunisian people.

    This is a huge event not only for the Arab countries and for Africa, this uprising is important for people yearning for better governance and freedom around the world.

    Al Jazeera’s (English & Arabic) coverage has been massive and very, very good. The BBC World News has finally got their veteran anchor and correspondent Lyse Doucet on the ground in Tunis, and CNNI (the international version of CNN, not that —- you are forced to watch back in the States) has their Senior Middle East correspondent Ben Wiederman reporting (mainly from his hotel room, it’s still dangerous out on the streets after sundown). Excellent TV news and press coverage of these historic events from some of the better international and national media organizations are holding their own in this new age of social media and blogs. I can imagine that Al Jazeera’s coverage alone is having an enoromous impact on viewers in the Middle East and North Africa.

    Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine is giving daily (Western viewpoint) analysis on the Tunisian revolution from Al Jazeera’s Doha HQ and FP’s Middle East Channel team (starring Marc Lynch) was on top of the uprising practically from the beginning. Issandr El Amrani and his team of independent journalists at The Arabist blog are also doing an excellent job.

    Let’s hope that everything goes well for the people of Tunisia as they try to wrestle the reins of power away from the despots and criminals that have ruled over them for so long. These are still early (and very dangerous) days for this popular uprising, it ain’t over yet by a long shot. Change! Yes we can!

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  36. Hi Ethan,

    my first impressions, after being quite involved in the events that took place in a purely virtual way, is that Facebook played a role in spreading the news about a revolt going on. Video sharing without commenting usually goes under the radar of Ammar404, and they’ve been a lot of it.

    Slim actually also did a few blog post on the french edition of ReadWriteWeb, among those was the one where he busted a phising attack from the government, stealing Facebook and Gmail passwords. We got a few ‘e-fatwa’ on our Facebook pages, both RWW US and RWW FR, many spam attacks from Ben Ali’s internet police… Ben Ali’s regime was operating a large scale evil community management scheme on Facebook that we must understand to fully grasp the full implication of social media in the Tunisian revolution.

    Claire in Paris also have a lot of data, not to mention, of course, the Nawaat team. We should definitely find a way to share and discuss all this :-)

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  39. Well, Tunisia had its revolution, the Jasmine Revolution. As of January 25th, we do not if thtat revolution is lost or not.

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