Tunisian will not be gagged again

Tunisians will not be easily unplugged again

16 Jan 2011

Discreet coup or “Jasmine Revolution”, the departure of Tunisia’s despot Zine el Abidene Ben Ali will not end his networked citizens’ calls for reform.

While Tunisians took time to savour the moment, or enjoy their release from detention, or book a emotional flight home, the Twitterverse slipped into post-game pundit mode to consider Friday’s dramatic events in the North African state.

Mindful of the lazy analysis that gave social media undeserved credit for fomenting Iran’s Twitter revolution that wasn’t, there was no rush to be fooled twice by the wave of chatter under the #sidibouzid hash tag that had followed each new development in Tunisia.

Sidi Bouzid was the town where a despairing jobless ex-student set himself alight in December, killing himself and setting off weeks of violence that culminated in Friday’s flight of despot president Zine el Abidene Ben Ali.

Al Jazeera satellite tv was relentless in its coverage, even as Tunisia’s own media stayed resolutely silent. Twitter and 3G phones played their parts and to fill the rest of the information gap left by the pro-state press, Tunisians used well honed circumvention skills to read websites blocked by one of the region’s most advanced web censorship systems.

But Tunisia is a well networked country at a human level too. Young, highly educated, technically savvy, every sector of society has its own community of articulate, engaged critics of the regime. Actors, lawyers, musicians, teachers, trades unionists, most of whom ignored the official press and were unimpressed by state sanctioned broadcasters.

These loosely networked groups were countered by gaggles of made-up organisations founded and funded by the regime to give thin support to its works, wryly named GONGOs or Government Organised Non-Governmental Organisations.

Independents who tried to turn their networks into active civil society groups were prevented from legally registering and thus effectively banned. Those few already registered — such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the Middle East’s oldest human rights group — or the country’s journalists’ union, found themselves organisationally shackled by a series of arcane legal challenges.

Denial of the right to freedom of association was enforced by the denial of another right, that of a fair hearing before an independent judiciary. Defying international practice, the president’s representatives handpicked judges, punishing those who failed to deliver regime-friendly verdicts with banishment to minor circuit courts the other side of the country.

Yet walking through Tunis’ Palace of Justice last month with independent lawyer Mohammed Abbou, a man jailed, beaten and publicly reviled by the state for years, we could hardly pass for scores of colleagues happy to be seen talking, hugging or kissing him. All under the eyes of the plainclothes police trailing him and us in an intentionally obvious intimidatory manner.

Even in a chamber as firmly controlled as the Palace of Justice, you wondered where the regime was, not least because Ben Ali’s mantra had been that the opposition was  just a tiny minority, funded by hostile governments and manipulated by foreign activists.

Everywhere you went you met well educated and connected people talking, complaining, speculating, sharing banned information.

Ben Ali’s men worked hard to to manipulate the media or sell it off to his friends and family, then assiduously targeted bloggers and social media leaders. Then in his last throw of the dice the night before the collapse, Ben Ali did a bizarre u-turn on live tv, unblocked banned websites and promised media reforms.

It was testimony to the regime’s belief in the significance of free expression. It believed the key to remaining in power lay in stopping Tunisians from talking, by hacking and deleting their e-mail accounts, bugging their phones, bringing trumped up criminal charges against them, or if all else failed, ordering a couple of thugs to give them a vicious kicking.

In the end the message they shared was that the emperor had no clothes. The debate goes on as to whether Twitter played the little boy to point that out first. Whatever, things will not be as they were.

People have been given a voice and they will not readily give it up. Those tweeters and photo sharers who worked hard to document the fall of the old regime will be doubly inspired by Friday’s triumph to track attempts by the new one to obstruct reform.

The system was bust before and is still bust, with or without Ben Ali, and still needs fixing.

Special circumstances apply in Tunisia that tend to rule out the weekend’s events as a model for revolutions anywhere, let alone as a harbinger of a Twittered Arab Spring.

The regime’s heart was unusually hollow, even by the standards of the region. Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali did not buy up a broad core of support to keep him in power, but kept the ill-gotten gains of staggering corruption in the hands of a small coterie of friends and family.

The recent WikiLeaks release of a handful of secret diplomatic cables detailing the depth of this corruption was not news to Tunisians. What seemed to bite deeper was the fact that the US ambassador to Tunis treated it as a tolerable fact, no matter for concern.

Maybe that finally broke the Tunisians of the oft-cited Arab “habit” of living in denial about their problems, and inspired them instead to look among themselves for answers.

It at least raises the possibility that the Arab world’s social networks might yet do more than just be on hand to lubricate a stalled engine for change, driven by economic inequality and fuelled by opportunity.

Rohan Jayasekera