Over the last few days the Tunisian flag has become the profile picture of
hundreds of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users in the Arab
Looking at the web, exploding with Tunisia’s news and sights,
reading the endless posts of Tunisian bloggers and Egyptian Facebookers, it’s
plain that Mark Zuckerberg’s creation and others like it are playing a
high-profile role in the unfolding unprecedented people’s revolution in
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Did young Tunisian “netizens” ever imagine that they would
become a moving force of “intifada tunisie” when they created their web pages
and Twitter accounts a couple of years ago? That they would move from publishing
angry notes, and “liking” each other’s statuses, and actually take it to the
streets, forcing the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? That they
would contradict the experts and analysts who asserted that Facebook, for all
its cyperpower, wouldn’t ever change something tangible?
“Why the revolution
will not be tweeted,” headlined Malcolm Gladwell, with an authority that brooked
no challenge, in the New Yorker
only last October.
“It started as a
fashion, a joke and became a real thing,” says Alaa, a 24-year-old resident of
Tunis who has participated in several demonstrations since the protests
intensified over the past month. Alaa reports, via Facebook, that the displays
of people power were catalyzed by Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of desperation – the
unlicensed young fruit and vegetables vendor, a desperate college graduate, set
fire to himself after his goods were confiscated by the police in Sidi
Tweets and Facebook posts about Bouazizi’s suicide protest spread
fast and wide, Alaa says.
“The Internet exploded with the news, and
seemingly it was the last [straw] for us Tunisians,” he says.
erroneous to assert that the bloggers, tweeters and other netizens were the only
moving force behind the revolution, or even the prime one. Decades of low
income, unemployment, lack of political freedom and media censorship created the
breeding ground for the outpouring of public anger.
But there was unrest
in 2001 as well; a key difference a decade later is the new capacity to get the
word out and stay in touch.
This new communications capacity has turned
the Internet into a useful – and in the case of Tunisia, even a mortal weapon –
in the hands of the common people against a loathed leadership. The
accessibility, the unlimited options for creating new connections, the sheer,
overwhelming speed of communication – all of these qualities contributed to the
popular uprising against Ben Ali, because long-frustrated and angry citizens
felt less alone and therefore less fearful, united by the power of the
During the demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, north of Tunis, when
the police was shooting live ammunition at the participants, untold numbers of
Tunisians nationwide were following events via Facebook and Twitter, tools that
were underestimated by the Tunisian regime, and that also could prove critical
where other vulnerable regimes are concerned.
Many bloggers had been
arrested and prosecuted by the regime since 2005. Some Facebook and Gmail
accounts were broken into; the Internet providers in Tunisia are
But evidently that didn’t deter computer- savvy young
And now everybody else in the Arab world is getting ready.
Some Egyptian netizens openly vow to repeat the Tunisian experience by the end
of the year. So, too, do some in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond. Crushed
last year, the Iranian blogosphere is conspicuously silent.
problem is that even on Monday, just four days after Ben Ali fled the country,
the Facebook posts and the tweets from Tunisia are naturally less excited than
at the weekend.
The rules of social media dictate that each post must be
intriguing, sensational, daring. If not, the author won’t be “liked” by his
Real life doesn’t work this way, though. After the ruler has
been ousted, his relatives killed and his palace set on fire, it’s hard to find
a matching or superior sensation. In cyberspace on Monday, it seemed as though
the peak online moment for posts headlined “Revolution in Tunisia” was already
On the ground in Tunisia, the focus is on the search for an
acceptable political solution, a way forward, with old players and new –
including long-outlawed Islamic parties – eager to stake a
Facebook revolutions are also faceless revolutions, with no head
and no collective mind of their own. The goals are fuzzy, and the
revolutionaries know even less than the Arab revolutionaries of half a century
ago about how to attain them. There’s a lesson there, too, for the would-be
emulators elsewhere in the region of Tunisia’s forces of change.
real, with a real face and a real name, now has to deal with the consequences of
this revolution – to put Tunisia’s pieces back together. The netizens won’t do
But they will be watching. And updating.