TUNISIA  THE INTERNET: CATALYSING A LEADERLESS REVOLUTION  Arab World Internet Institute                                Be...
and protesters in the southern Tunisian region of            websites covering the street protests were blockedBen Guerdan...
Hillary Clinton declared in a speech during a meet-                       need help!” – which helped others to warn the ar...
The internet and social media deserve full credit        Action stepsin helping citizens to design their future and make  ...
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  1. 1. TUNISIA THE INTERNET: CATALYSING A LEADERLESS REVOLUTION Arab World Internet Institute Ben Ali was the darling of the Western countries Khaled Koubaa and considered the trusted leader who would main- www.aw2i.org tain Tunisia’s pro-Western policies and keep the country away from the extremism found in its larger neighbours: Libya and Algeria.Introduction But the reality was different, and Ben Ali began consolidating his rule by restraining the opposition,Since December 2010 Tunisia has experienced an and taking control of the media and armed forces.unprecedented and spontaneous wave of protests, In 1999 he organised Tunisia’s first multi-candidatefuelled by a persistent lack of freedom of expres- presidential election and won it with 99.44% of thesion, anger over governance corruption issues, and vote. A constitutional referendum in 2002 amendedmounting frustration over unemployment and so- the upper age limit for a presidential candidate tocial exclusion. These countrywide protests led to 75 years of age, to give him the ability to run for athe toppling of the regime and the ousting of Tuni- fifth term in 2009. He won with 89% of the vote.sia’s second president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on Under his regime, Tunisia became known as14 January 2011 after 23 years in power. His depar- one of the most restrictive countries with a poorture into exile in Saudi Arabia has not calmed the human rights record, including the imprisonmentviolence as demonstrations and resistance continue of opinion leaders, the surveillance of websites,on the streets, and on social networks. The political emails and other internet activities, the restrictionoutlook has been positively impacted by the revo- of freedom of association, and the harassment andlution. An interim president and government have intimidation of cyber activists.been established, different high commissions re-sponsible for protecting the revolution appointed The internet as a catalyst to change…and various reforms initiated. One of the clearest signs of social resistance in Tuni- This social resistance was buoyed by pictures sia was the revolt in Redeyef in 2008, in the miningposted on Facebook, flashed on Twitter and pub- area of Gafsa in the centre of the country. This waslished on blogs and other online forums. This brutally crushed by police, and no news went outgave the revolution different names: the “Internet other than a few videos published online – on theRevolution”, “Twitter Revolution” or “Jasmine Revo- video platform YouTube, which had already beenlution”; but regardless of the name, Tunisian youth blocked by authorities. A small number of activistsdemonstrated the important and critical role that and journalists tried to unveil what happened butthe internet and social media play in struggles for they were imprisoned and harassed by Ben Ali’sfreedom and for human rights today. regime.Policy and political background Cyber activists had already been hard hit by the death in 2005 of Zouhair Yahyaoui, one of theTunisia has an impressive political history: slavery first people to denounce human rights violationswas abolished in 1848, a Constitution established on his website TuneZine. Moreover, the release ofin 1861, polygamy abolished in 1956, abortion legal- WikiLeaks cables had made citizens more aware ofised in 1973, a Human Rights League established in the corruption of the regime, in particularly Ben Ali’s1977. Of the Arab countries, these qualified her as family.the one nearest to democracy. Other incidents also showed signs of brewing The first president, Habib Bourguiba, went to social unrest: the death of Abdesselem Trimeche ingreat lengths to build the country by investing in ed- April 2010 in Monastir, and Chamseddine El Hani inucation and health, but without being able to deepen November 2010 in Metlaoui – both immolated them-democracy in the country. On 7 November 1987, Zine selves. Neither case was covered by the media,El Abidine Ben Ali, just nominated prime minister, other than some information and videos posted onousted Bourguiba in a bloodless coup, while promis- social websites. Similarly, clashes between policeing that there would be “no presidency for life”. TUNISIA / 249
  2. 2. and protesters in the southern Tunisian region of websites covering the street protests were blockedBen Guerdane in August 2010 were lightly reported in Tunisia. One report placed your country, along withby the media. Saudi Arabia, as the worst in the region regarding In- On the morning of 17 December, Mohamed ternet censorship. A 2009 CPJ study found Tunisia toBouazizi, a 26-year-old vegetable trader, immolated be one of the 10 worst countries worldwide to be ahimself after a municipal inspector tried to confis- blogger, in part for the same reasons.”1cate his merchandise. That afternoon, Ali Bouazizi The Ben Ali regime had also begun to attack– a cousin of Mohamed Bouazizi – uploaded a video activists’ Facebook and email accounts. A hiddenon Facebook of the first protest, just in front of the script injected into popular site login pages hadSidi Bouzid governorate, a few metres from the been discovered by cyber activists,2 and the Elec-place where his cousin had immolated himself. tronic Frontier Foundation advised Tunisians to use The same day Al Jazeera news downloaded the HTTPS to log in to their accounts, allowing informa-video of the protest from Facebook and broadcasted tion to be encrypted.3it on Al Jazeera Mubasher. Unfortunately, many online journalists and Unlike the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, Tu- activists reported that their accounts had been de-nisian activists used social media tools effectively leted or compromised. Ben Ali’s cyber militia usedby capturing and uploading videos on Facebook the stolen passwords to delete Facebook groups,and sharing them on Twitter – but the heart of the pages, videos and accounts.4protests lay in the organised and violent protests in For those reasons “Anonymous” – an interna-different towns in the country. tional internet activism group – attacked different Unlike Mubarak, who shut down the internet for official Tunisian websites, including those of thefive days in Egypt, Ben Ali was counting on his leg- presidency and the government, using distributedendary oppressive structure and the self-censorship denial of service (DDoS) attacks.5from his citizens that he was used to dealing with. El Général, a Tunisian rap singer originallyThis structure was – unfortunately for him – not able from Sfax in southeastern Tunisia, had been ar-or prepared to respond to the rapid dissemination rested after publishing a rap song online criticisingof information using new social media. President Ben Ali. His video was to become very Cyber activists were the first on the scene, docu- popular among young Tunisians and widely circu-menting and sharing news of the protests; but by lated online. Other activists were arrested by policethe first week of January, millions of internet users in different towns and their computers seized.6became more and more active, reacting to what was Ben Ali gave three speeches, calling the pro-happening each day and night in Kasserine, Thala, tests and riots “terrorist acts”. In his last speech heMenzel and Bouzaian; and to the very repressive asked for pardon by declaring his intention not topolice reaction that they witnessed. run as a candidate for a new term in the 2014 elec- Tunisian citizens were also able to follow infor- tions, and promising to give freedom to the mediamation reported by international TV channels (Al and put an end to censorship of the internet.Jazeera, France 24, Al Arabiya, etc.), which were On the night of 13 January, just after this lastbroadcasting videos and information reported by speech, the Ben Ali regime tried to play catch-upnormal citizens and activists on the ground. The and organise pro-Ben Ali riots using paid militiastate-owned TV7 – named after 7 November 1987 from his political party RCD. At the same time, activ-when Ben Ali secured power through his putsch – ists were intelligent enough to continue resistancecontinued to ignore the growing social uprising. on social media sites to spread the call for a big Despite the censorship of almost all video and demonstration to be organised the next day.image-sharing platforms (e.g. YouTube, Dailymotion, The protests by then had gained vocal inter-Vimeo, Flickr), Tunisian protesters learned quickly national support. United States Secretary of Statehow to use proxies, anonymisers and circumventiontools to share information on platforms like Facebook 1 www.cpj.org/2011/01/tunisia-must-end-censorship-on-coverage-and Twitter – the hashtags #bouazizi and #sidibouzid of-unrest.phpreached a high-level trend worldwide. 2 www.thetechherald.com/article.php/201101/6651/Tunisian- government-harvesting-usernames-and-passwords The Tunisian authorities meanwhile tried every 3 www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/01/eff-calls-immediate-action-means possible to thwart the flow of information, defend-tunisianwhich pushed the New York-based Committee to 4 www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/01/tunisia/2Protect Journalists to send an open letter to Ben Ali 5 english.aljazeera.net/indepth/ features/2011/01/20111614145839362.htmlstating: “Regional and international media have re- 6 en.rsf.org/tunisia-wave-of-arrests-of-bloggers-ported that numerous local and international news and-07-01-2011,39238.html 250 / Global Information Society Watch
  3. 3. Hillary Clinton declared in a speech during a meet- need help!” – which helped others to warn the armying in Qatar on 13 January: “There’s no problem with about his situation, a move which saved him.10people peacefully demonstrating and protesting. Protesters, from all parts of the country, re-It’s going on in Tunisia right now. We support peace- mained in the Kasbah in Tunis in front of the primeful protest and the right of assembly.”7 minister’s offices, now to demand that the transi- The 14 January demonstrations came to a head tional government resign. The Kasbah sit-in (theas thousands of people gathered outside the Min- first and second)11 was encouraged and followed byistry of Interior, a symbol of the Ben Ali regime’s social media. Different groups and pages on Face-repression. Beginning in the afternoon, while Tu- book were dedicated to Kasbah. Even a dedicatednisian TV7 announced a state of emergency “to committee to coordinate citizen media was createdprotect the Tunisian people and their properties,” by activist participants in the sit-ins to report aboutbloggers and cyber activists reported that a special their long days and difficult weather conditions.security force had arrested members of the Trabelsi After this sit-in, Mohamed Ghannouchi an-family – the family of Ben Ali’s wife – at an airport. nounced his resignation as prime minister of theLater, TV7 declared that a major announcement to interim government, and the interim president ap-the Tunisian people was to be made soon. Bloggers pointed Beji Caid el Sebsi in his place. The interimbegan to report movements of the presidential air- president then announced that an election wouldplane and spoke about a coup. be held for a Constituent Assembly. At the end of the day, Tunisian Prime MinisterMohamed Ghannouchi declared in an official state- Conclusionsment that Ben Ali had stepped down, and that he Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford andhad taken over as interim president as allowed by a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation,Article 56 of the Tunisian Constitution. asked the following question in his article “First Tunisia began writing a new wave of liberty and thoughts on Tunisia and the role of the Internettweets stated: “Every Arab leader is watching Tuni- about the uprising”: “Would this revolution havesia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter?”hope and solidarity.”8 And his answer was “Yes.”12 Despite the happiness of Tunisians after this On the other hand, in an official statementannouncement, the first reaction of cyber activists about the events in Tunisia, Twitter representativewas to continue their hard work. Straight away they Sean Garrett stated: “We might be able to providecalled for Ghannouchi to step down and appoint thoughtful analysis after all the events of TunisiaFoued Mebazaa, the president of the Chamber of have unfolded. But, right now, along with the rest ofDeputies, as interim president, drawing on Article the world, we sit back and watch in awe at how peo-57 and not 569 of the Constitution. They felt that Ar- ple are using Twitter and other platforms to provideticle 56 might give Ben Ali the opportunity to return on-the-ground perspective at what might become ato Tunisia as president if he wanted to. By 15 Janu- truly historic moment.”13ary Mebazaa took power as interim president and The answer from Tunisian activists to Moro-appointed Ghannouchi as interim prime minister. zov’s question would be, for sure: “No.” This is Social mobilisation through social media tools mainly because, as explained above, without so-to support civil resistance against attacks from the cial media tools other traditional media such as Almilitia continued following Ben Ali’s departure. The Jazeera would not have been able to report on whathashtag #situation reported what happened in each happened. International organisations and othercity, warning of sniper locations, asking for blood countries would not have been able to understanddonations, and even saving lives. A seventeen- what happened and would not have put more pres-year-old Tunisian cyber activist tweeted using his sure on the Ben Ali regime.account @BulletSkan: “The army is not respond-ing to calls! There are armed men in our yard! We7 www.enduringamerica.com/home/2011/1/13/tunisia-liveblog- concession-or-confrontation.html 10 videos.tf1.fr/infos/lci-est-a-vous/tunisie-twitter-a-sauve-ma-8 techcrunch.com/2011/01/16/tunisia-2 vie-6226394.html9 Article 56 delegates power to the prime minister in case of 11 There were two Kasbah sit-ins, both between mid-January and the temporary disability of the president. In this case the president end of February. may return. Article 57 gives power to the president of the Chamber 12 neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/01/14/first_thoughts_on_ of Deputies after an absolute disability of the president and does tunisia_and_the_role_of_the_internet not allow the president back to office. 13 techcrunch.com/2011/01/14/tunisia TUNISIA / 251
  4. 4. The internet and social media deserve full credit Action stepsin helping citizens to design their future and make Today Tunisia has a clear chance to rebuild a newit happen. They catalysed and facilitated the revolu- country. Using the internet, citizens are more likelytion and anarchy that were organised but effectively to lead this process. Cyber activists should pay at-leaderless. tention to the need for: Protests were in fact spontaneous and citizen-led – not supported by a central decision-making A national broadband plan that ensures accessprocess. In this sense the internet helped to create for all in the country. This will help the Tunisiana “user-generated” revolution, where everyone was economy become more competitive by creatingparticipating in a different way in a countrywide jobs and supporting entrepreneurship. Socialrevolutionary process. Even after 14 January and af- solutions can be enabled by access to fasterter the politicians took over the process of change, internet.social media still supported the resistance with the A more open and solid internet governanceaim of defining the “new” Tunisia. system is needed, and a decentralised in- frastructure that can guarantee freedom of expression. An open and more accountable gov- ernment is needed. ! 252 / Global Information Society Watch