While most of the world’s attention towards Africa is understandably focused on this week’s independence referendum Southern Sudan, another story is unfolding in North Africa that may tell of future events to come.
On December 17, Mohammed Bouazizi sat down in front of the city hall in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid and set himself on fire to protest the high level of youth unemployment throughout the country. A university graduate, Bouazizi was reduced to illegally selling vegetables on the street to try to make a living. It appears that when the police confiscated his vegetables for not having a permit, Bouazizi decided that enough was enough. Though he ultimately died from his injuries, that singular act awoke other dissatisfied youth and triggered demonstrations and other self immolations, first in Sidi Bouzid but quickly spreading through the country’s central and southern regions. Despite quick police and government action to try and quell the crowds, by the end of the month the protests engulfed the capital Tunis and there is no apparent end in sight.
While the issue of youth unemployment triggered the protests, others have since joined in mainly as a result of harsh police tactics against the demonstrators. Reports of protesters being beaten and tortured after being taken into police custody have emerged from several places, and numerous demonstrators have died in confrontations with police using live ammunition. Many of those caught reporting this information have been arrested, including several Tunisian bloggers and a local rapper who posted a tribute song to the protests online. Soon, worker’s unions and lawyers joined the demonstrations. When some lawyers were arrested and beaten for their peaceful participation, 95 percent of the country’s lawyers launched a general strike with the backing of their bar association. As Mark Lynch noted there is no clear focus or leadership to the protests – even opposition parties have yet to really join in – but rather the chaos engulfing Tunisia in the past month appears to be the long awaited spill over of national dissatisfaction with the government.
Which brings us to another point worth noting: although Tunisia is rarely a topic of interest in the Western news, the government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali is one of the most repressive in the world with an infrastructure for domestic censorship that rivals China. The watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Tunisia as 164 out of 178 for press freedom, where Finland is ranked #1 and the brutally oppressive regime of Eritrea is #178. One of the reasons for the low ranking is that unlike many other oppressive regimes in the world, the Tunisian government is quite internet savvy making even new modes of communication like social media networks and blogs greatly susceptible to government interference and ultimately for its authors, a consequence of arrest and imprisonment. Dissent is not tolerated; loyalty must be ensured.
This has been the hallmark of Ben Ali’s reign since he first took power in 1987 but may be coming undone as we speak. Yet so effective is the repression against freedom of speech that thus far the protests have largely escaped the attention of the mainstream media in the West. With the exception of Al Jazeera who has also faced difficulties in reporting unfolding events, there have been few stories carried in Western newspapers and media outlets on the demonstrations, leading some to claim that there are two media blackouts in place: the one inside Tunisia and the one in the West. However as usual, where the mainstream media fails the blogosphere picks up the slack, making blogs arguably the most reliable source of English-language information on the continuing unrest. Inside the country, prominent bloggers and activists have found their emails and Facebook accounts hacked following a stealthy government campaign to force them to abandon secure https log-in sites in favor of unsecured sites, prompting many to turn to Twitter since that interface is unaffected by the same security loophoops.
It is unclear what the ultimate outcome of the protests will be. Nevertheless, as a country often considered to be one of the most stable in the region, the undoing of Tunisia may lead others in the frequently oppressive region to follow the Tunisian lead. Riots have already broken out in neighboring Algeria over food prices, though as The Moor Next Door observes, this too may have more to do with general domestic dissatisfaction than any particular tangible reason. Perhaps for that reason, the issue of the “Tunisia Scenario” has resonated as a topic of conversation throughout the capitals of North Africa and the Middle East in the past few weeks and may just be the trigger for those regimes to evaluate their own policies towards political and press freedom.
What is clear is the still powerful role that social media can play in fighting political repression. Following the so-called Twitter revolution in Iran, many decried the use of social media by demonstrators as overblown and overhyped by the Western media. In some ways that is true, as Twitter was not the primary organizational tool used by the protesters, however it was an effective way for that story to reach the masses outside of Iran. Today in Tunisia, amid government blackouts and Western apathy among the press and government bureaucracy, social media and second generation journalism through blogs is emerging as one of the only methods for demonstrators to tell their tale for those willing to listen. All of which goes to show that Malcolm Gladwell may be wrong in his view of the role of social media in politics – the revolution just might be tweeted.
For confirmed developments, see Al Jazeera English’s “Trouble in Tunisia” page here.
Good blog coverage is available at Global Voices here.