Social media did not topple Tunisia’s dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – but they proved to be an important tool for democratisation. Today, cyber activism is an important part of the country’s public sphere.
When broad-based protest movements erupted in North Africa in the winter of 2010/2011, the media searched for some terms to describe these uprisings. They still speak of "the Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, the "the Arab Spring" and the "Facebook Revolution".
Many wouldn’t agree that the fate of Tunisian martyrs who died for dignity was anything as soft as jasmine. Becoming victims of tear gas and rubber bullets was not pleasant either. Peoples’ fight for freedom and democracy in the Arab region should not be diminished to the season "spring". Nor would many cyber-activists who have suffered repression and almost lost their lives agree that profound political and social transformations basically relate to Facebook.
However, it cannot be denied that social media played a crucial role in the chain of events that led to political and social change in Tunisia. The country had witnessed two major protest movements against dictatorship before: the "Bread Revolt" of January 1984 under President Habib Bourguiba and the "Revolt of the Gafsa Mining Basin" in 2008 under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The latter in particular proved unable to spread across the nation, so the coercive forces of the regime could easily crack down on it. In December 2010, things were quite different. Information that hurt the government spread with unprecedented speed. State agencies were unable to control digitised communication. Only 28 days of mass mobilisation changed the political climate in Tunisia completely, and, after 23 years, the Ben Ali regime fell.
In the winter of 2010/11, information spread directly from the local to the international level. The values and demands of the movement were expressed on various blogs and thus became accessible all over the world. The criminal and immoral nature of the Ben Ali’s regime was revealed for all to see.
Before the revolution, young people had basically used Facebook to socialise among each other. Then, they spontaneously used it to mobilise protests, and they were surprised to discover how effective that was. Social media became an alternative to the mainstream media, not only by reporting current affairs, but also serving as a platform for debate and even organising collective action.
A history of cyber activism
Today, many believe cyber activism started with the circulation of the pictures of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and subsequent videos of protests and police brutality in late 2010. But some bloggers knew long before that state agencies were afraid of information being spread on the Internet. There had been many cases of blog censorship.
"I first saw the impact of the web with the track down, arrest, imprisonment then death of Zouhair", says Abdelkarim Ben Abdallah, who started his blog Mouse Hunter in 2003. Zouhair Yahyaoui is considered the first "martyr of internet freedom" in Tunisia. He was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to prison for running Tunezine, a website that criticised the government. He suffered torture and deprivation in prison for 18 months. After being released, he died of a heart attack in 13 March 2005. In 2012, March 13 was therefore declared the National Day of Internet Freedom.
Indeed, the regime repeatedly shut down blogs, intimidated contributors and judicially harassed them. The government felt threatened by cyber world and tried to restrict Internet content. Repression certainly did not begin with the imprisonment of Slim Amamou on 6 January 2011, news of which further fuelled the revolutionary movement.
A blog is accessible to all Internet users, whereas social media platforms only grant full access to registered users. To follow someone on Twitter or Facebook, one needs that person’s permission. Accordingly, governments find it more difficult – though not impossible – to monitor social media. Under Ben Ali’s dictatorship, ever more people had begun to use social media where the government was not monitoring communication stringently. Thanks to its wide reach, Facebook became a tool for revolutionaries.
Social media facilitate users making others aware of all sorts of items on the Internet. Links to video platforms such as YouTube or Dailymotion are quite popular. Both were censored in the Ben-Ali era of course, not least because rap artists used them to point out issues like unemployment, corruption and police brutality. However, freedom remains restricted, as the rappers Ahmed Ben Ahmed (known as Klay BBJ), Ala Yaacoub, (known as Weld El 15) and Hamada Ben Amor (known as El Général) could tell you. All of them were arrested, jailed or sentenced for releasing political rap songs. El Général was jailed during the revolution under Ben Ali, the other two last year.
Today, in the transition to a new political order, people continue to use blogs, online videos and social media to influence politics and draw attention to their causes. They benefit from ever more people using the Internet.
The blogosphere is continuously shaping the political climate. The distinction between blogs and social media is blurring however, because many contributors are active on blogs as well as Facebook, Twitter et cetera.
Many bloggers, moreover, have become social-media trainers, involving new people. Abdelkarim, for instance, has facilitated 50 workshops through "Les Ateliers de Blogging" since August 2011, where young people especially in the regions outside the capital created their own blogs and Twitter accounts and were trained on how to use them for social change and policy influence.
Cyber activism is not restricted to human-rights issues. "Citizen journalism" and "active citizenship" have become related ideas. Concerned people use the Internet to identify important issues, raise awareness and spread information.
Some cyber activists assume the role of watchdogs. A prominent example was "Sheraton Gate" in late December 2012. Olfa Riahi, a blogger, released a series of receipts from the Sheraton hotel in Tunis. She revealed that Rafik Abdessalem, the minister of foreign affairs was embezzled in a potential adultery scandal and the misuse of public money.
The minister later resigned; his case is being investigated. For his party, the Islamist Ennadah, this was a major setback. Today, Olfa speaks of "winning one battle" in the "long war" for democratic governance. She resents the authoritarian leanings of Islamist politicians.
Today, policymakers from various parties and institutions are aware of the crucial role of social media. Many have begun using social media themselves. They want to reach especially – though not only – to young people. Each party has its own official Facebook page and almost all public figures have Twitter accounts.
The role of social media in bringing down the dictatorship must not be over-emphasised. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did not flee from Facebook pages, he fled the country when he saw masses of people rallying in the streets against him.
Social media, moreover, cannot replace mainstream media, which have more technical and human resources for researching information and covering events. Nonetheless, social media matter – as a space for exchanging views, thinking critically and, most fundamentally, exercising one’s freedom of expression.
Aya Chebbi is an award-winning Tunisian blogger and speaker, women's advocate and peace activist.
Aya Chebbi's Blogspot: Proudly Tunisian