The “Jasmine Revolution” or “Cactus Revolution” (names given to 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 people around the world what is happening in their “green” home (“green” is a nickname used for Tunisia). 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 to be censored.
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 [triggered] protests, increasingly directed against the repressive regime of [the now exiled] President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali,” says Kacem Jlidi, 22, a Tunisian activist. Using Facebook and Twitter, many general strikes and protests 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 reported: “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 state 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. He now 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 Lebanese had heard about the events in Tunisia through Facebook. As for the impact of social media and the importance of the Internet in Tunisia, people should take note of 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, [when he] 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 State Secretary for Youth and Sports. Congratulatory messages filled the online airwaves for hours. For the first time ever, people were listening to their ministers’ oath via Slim’s tweets. Other voices were calling Slim to resign since the new government was still oppressing those voices from the street that continued to reject the remaining figures of Ben Ali’s Constitution Democratic Rally party.
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 photo and video coverage, with thousands joining. On January 6th, Slim Amamou (before being appointed State Secretary) and Azyz Amamy (another prominent blogger) were detained. Facebook pages to free them were created and thousands joined. Slim’s last interview 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 state police bureau). Slim, along with Yassine Ayari and Lina Ben Mhenni, two other online activists, signed in May 2010 a petition and handed it to the Ministry of Interior calling for the censorship of the Internet in Tunisia to be lifted (YouTube, for example, was banned in November 2007). Slim 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 the “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 stop the protest in May against censorship, her parents’ house was robbed, and 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 [felt] suffocated due to 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 now been banned and online freedom is, for now, a reality in Tunisia.