By Firas Al-Atraqchi
In what could be a sign of how social media is reshaping politics in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisian protesters turned to Twitter to broadcast information on their popular revolt against the government’s economic and media policies.
Videos of street clashes in Tunisian towns were broadcast on YouTube before some were taken down, minute-by-minute updates on the number of casualties were retweeted, and reports on the political situation as it unraveled kept Arab audiences mesmerized.
Bechir Blagui, who runs the Free Tunisia website, says that people have tossed around different names for this “revolution.”
“They called it the jasmine revolt, Sidi Bouzid revolt, Tunisian revolt… but there is only one name that does justice to what is happening in the homeland: Social media revolution, or back home, better called the Facebook revolution,” Blagui said.
He says that in the absence of traditional media – government bans on reporting and the jailing of independent journalists like Fahem Boukaddous – Tunisians resorted to their cell phones and going online to document the history of their nation in the past four weeks.
“Combined with Twitter, this helped on the ground organization of massive crowds from around small towns in remote areas. It was crucial for the organizing effort,” Blagui added.
Nasser Weddady, a civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress who has been closely monitoring events in Tunisia, believes that while social media didn’t cause the popular uprising, its most important role was to inform the outside world of the protests, the number killed in clashes with police, etc.
“At least for the first two weeks, Al Jazeera, and France24 footage on the events was exclusively provided by Tunisian social media users and aggregators like Nawaat [a Tunisian dissident group]. Twitter was more crucial in informing foreign observers and journalists,” said Weddady, who is also an anti-slavery activist and Twitter user.
“But the bulk of the action took place on Facebook with the government aggressively harvesting users passwords through phishing attacks and shutting down user accounts with video and info about the events,” he said.
Other media analysts say social media filled the gap left empty by most mainstream media in the West, which they say were too slow to report on the situation.
Nir Rosen, a Fellow at the New York University Center on Law and University, tweeted: “Sh**ty western media ignoring uprising in Tunisia and regime’s brutal crackdown. If it was in Iran? We’ll never hear about the Tunisian Neda.”
On January 14, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dissolved his government, called for legislative elections in six months and promised not to run in 2014. But this did not quiet public anger and the president fled Tunis later that evening.
Houeida Anouar, a young Tunisian woman, tweeted: “I have never been so proud of being Tunisian!”
In the hours leading up to Ben Ali’s flight from the country, there was a flurry of activity on social media networks.
Sami ben Gharbia, a Tunisian living in Germany, tweeted: “It is confirmed.
Tunisia’s Ambassador to UNESCO has resigned and announced his resignation on local French radio in Paris.”
He later tweeted – and posted a video link – that police snipers had been shooting at protesters in the capital Tunis. This has not been independently verified.
Other Arab civil rights activists have been monitoring both the momentum and the impact of the Tunisian experience with some hoping for similar reforms in their countries.
Mona El Tahawy, a columnist and public speaker on Arab affairs, tweeted that “Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity.”
Aalmasri, a Jordanian Twitter user, tweeted: “There will be more blood. Stay strong Tunisian brothers and sisters!”
Jihan Ibrahim, an activist for media and political reform in Egypt, has been avidly following events in Tunisia. A proponent of social media and activism, she tweeted “This revolution was Twitterized.”
On December 31, I wrote that social media will become a serious threat to governments which stifle freedom of expression and pursue flawed economic – often corrupt – policies.
By publishing online — and dissenting in 140 characters or less — journalists in the Middle East and North Africa are challenging dominant state institutions.
This is likely to grow in the next decade as more in the Middle East log on and give the media landscape a much-needed makeover.
The Tunisian experience indicates that the Middle East and North Africa are likely to witness a constant tug of war between media reformists and the public on the one front and repressive policy-makers and authoritarian figures on the other.
Weddady, believes that such power in social media could push other Arab governments to “step up their restrictions in light of what is happening in Tunisia, a country that was a model in terms of efficient repression online and offline.”
Nevertheless, a distinction needs to be made about the effect of social media on popular mobilization: Technology does not create revolutions, but it does help facilitate them. In a region where media blackouts are prevalent under strict government media control, “getting the word out” is fundamental. The conflict then takes on another aspect – a war of words between state regulated information flow and uncensored, unrestricted information reaching the masses.
It is in such a scenario that social media plays a critical role. Had there been no tweets about police firing live ammunition on protesters in one part of Tunisia, for example, citizens elsewhere in Tunisia may have been left without a clue what was happening in their country, and would have had to resort to state-controlled media. Once information reached them – via social media such as Twitter and Facebook – about the state’s violent reaction to protesters calling for economic and political reform, they too took to the streets to express their anger and dissent.
But for now Tunisia is on the threshold of a new dawn. Blagui says the road will still be tough and there will be mistakes but Tunisians are ready for it.
“We will build it and we will do it on our own. I see a progression of civil society meetings, adjustment of the constitution to limit powers of the president and give absolute freedom to political parties and to people’s rights to associate and gather,” he said.
“I see fresh elections that will reflect the will of the people and I see a peaceful process that will reflect people’s acute awareness of democracy and how it works.”
Firas Al-Atraqchi is an associate professor of practice at the journalism and mass communication department at the American University in Cairo. He has covered the Middle East for 17 years and was a senior editor at Al Jazeera English. This article has been updated from a version which previously appeared on the Huffington Post.