Editor’s Note: In the last month, Tunisia, known by Amnesty International as having one of the Arab world’s most repressive governments, has seen a surge of public outcry and protest – the worst political crisis in Tunisia since the current president, Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, began his now 24-year-long presidency in a 1987 bloodless coup. The demonstrations began on December 17, after a 26-year-old impoverished college graduate, publicly self-immolated in front of a government building in protest against authorities’ confiscation of his only means of income: an illegal vegetable vending cart.
When Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook, he was not necessarily thinking of providing a platform for Arab protestors to express their frustration with hunger, unemployment and corruption. Nor was he planning for his website to become the battlefield between Tunisian authorities and web activists. This, however, is exactly what has happened, resulting in the largest and most violent demonstration in Tunisia in decades.
Tunisians on Facebook are not declaring their “relationship status” or uploading family photos. Rather, they are constantly uploading videos and up-to-the-minute Twitter feeds of street demonstrations. Some of the images of alleged police brutality are very gruesome, serving only to outrage people even further.
Social media has become the main platform for the marginalized Arab masses, because it enables them to express their frustration and send their message to the world in defiance against censorship, which is widespread in the Arab world.
And it’s not just Facebook. Thanks to YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter, the Tunisian street demonstrations, which have so far claimed the lives of 25 people (according to Amnesty International), are now widespread not only throughout Tunisia but also in neighboring countries. If anything, these social networking websites have shown that courage is contagious in Northern Africa.
The protests first flared in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17 after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate, set himself on fire outside a government building. Demonstrations then spread throughout the country. Ordinary Tunisians who were fed up with unemployment and corruption took to the streets and were later joined by labor unions and a group of 300 lawyers. Students, professionals and youths were also quick to follow.
Tunisian state television reported that the protests were “isolated events.” This narrative, however, was completely shattered when Al Jazeera satellite television aired Facebook and YouTube videos, as well as Flickr images showing that the demonstrations were anything but isolated. Ironically, Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks were forced to turn to social media videos because non-state media were banned from reporting from Tunisia.
The activism also spread globally, through the Internet, and gained further ground when it joined forces with the now infamous global “hactivist” group “Anonymous,” which recently attacked the servers of Visa, Mastercard and PayPal when the companies started blocking donations to WikiLeaks. In fact, the group told Al Jazeera, “The thing that did it for us was initially [Tunisian authorities’] censoring of WikiLeaks.”
“Anonymous” hackers temporarily shut down at least eight Tunisian government websites, including those for the president, prime minister, ministry of foreign affairs and the stock exchange, reports Al Jazeera.
With such powerful and far-reaching effects, the Tunisian social media activism has quickly caught the ire of the Tunisian government. Authorities have hijacked and deleted the Facebook pages of some of the most vocal activists in the Tunisian cyber-community such as Sofiene Chourabi, a journalist for Al-Tariq al-Jadid magazine and a strong critic of the government.
Recent WikiLeaks documents, which show various governments demanding user information from Facebook, Google and Twitter, highlight the additional dilemmas faced by protestors. As cyber-activism grows worldwide, social networking sites must decide their role in state censorship.
Although Chourabi and others do not accuse Facebook or YouTube of collaborating with the Tunisian government, they feel that more could have been done to protect Internet independence. “I think it is high time for Facebook and Google to take serious steps to protect Tunisian activists and journalists,” Chourabi told an Al Jazeera journalist.
Not Just in Tunisia
In the Arab world, it is not just Tunisia that has taking political advantage of social networking websites. Social media has become the main platform for activism for Algerians, Palestinians and Egyptians, as well.
Case in point: Facebook and Gaza. Electronic media expert Ashraf Mushtahi told Al Jazeera that as many as 45-50% of Gaza’s youth use Facebook as their window to the world. A quick search for the word “Gaza” on Facebook yields hundreds of pages dedicated to Gaza in English, Arabic and other languages, some of which have hundreds of thousands of fans.
However, as with the Tunisian authorities, Palestinian and Egyptian Gaza web activists have had to contend with page closures and other forms of internet censorship. In June 2010, the Facebook pages of Egyptian groups that were campaigning against the wall being constructed between Gaza and Egypt were shut down. This left many Arab activists wondering which pages or even which sites would be closed next.
New America Media, News Analysis, Jalal Ghazi, Posted: Jan 14, 2011