Tunisia: In days, social media ended 54 years of dictatorship

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The World

As U.S. headlines focused on the tragedy in Tucson, a world-changing drama played out an ocean away in Tunisia. In a few days, social media ended 54 years of dictatorship.

Spurred by U.S. diplomats’ blunt assessment of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, revealed by WikiLeaks, Tunisians rallied on Facebook and mobilized via Twitter.

Ben Ali tried to temporize, but he faced a durable dictator’s worst nightmare: the balance of fear had shifted. A mob torched his beach palace. He fled in panic.

No hard-liner in the Arab world, or anywhere else, could miss the implications. Tunisia was hardly Iraq. If it fell so easily to insurgents, all despots were endangered.

Unlike most tyrants, Ben Ali kept up the front of enlightened benevolence that his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, fostered after independence from France in 1956.

Neighboring Algeria fought a vicious war that still taints its relations with France. Tunisia, peaceful and prosperous, stayed close to its former colonizer.

Bourguiba held power until no one was sure whether he was dead or alive. Then in 1987, with blessings from Paris, Ben Ali promoted himself from chief minister to president.

On the surface, Tunisia has been a moderate and modern haven in a restive Muslim world. But, clearly, Ben Ali had read his Machiavelli: It is better to be feared than loved.

Police stamped out dissident sparks with vigor. They muzzled imams who decried sin at Mediterranean resorts. Students demanding jobs and free speech risked torture.

Outsiders paid scant attention. State-controlled media made a show of democratic trappings. Few correspondents bothered with a Florida-sized enclave of 10 million.

Tourists sunbathed half-naked at Hammamet. Travelers found paradise among olive groves, old-stone bazaars, outdoor grills and cafes on the island of Djerba.

But Tunisians knew their own reality. When an economic downturn hit hard, protest was stifled before it could reach critical mass. Infiltrators kept dissidents in line.

And then computers, satellites and cell phones changed all of that. As during those street riots in Tehran, official media could no longer contain the message.

Social media might have altered the course of Iran in mid-2009, but the government also used Facebook and Twitter to sow confusion with instant disinformation.

Iranians are old hands at shaping the message. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the Shah with sermons on smuggled cassette tapes circulated in markets and mosques.

But in most countries, ubiquitous secret police are a poor match for crowds whipped into fury and directed to rallying points by uncensored electronic impulses.

When fear shifts, it is palpable and unmistakable.

Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania until a balcony speech in Bucharest. The crowd, emboldened by rumors of massacre, surged forward. He took a step back, and it was all over.

That was the last chunk of Iron Curtain to collapse, in 1989, exposing a Soviet Union that had once boasted it would bury America.

The end was swift, but Eastern European revolutions lasted decades. Samizdat writing passed from hand to hand. Politburos often jammed Washington’s Radio Free Europe.

Mobutu Sese Seko hung on in the Congo for 32 years, plundering billions as millions died from civil strife and starvation that kept his foes in disarray.

In a huge nation with communications hardly evolved from jungle drums, Mobutu had plenty of time to coerce, co-opt or kill anyone who challenged his power.

Laurent Kabila’s advancing army delivered the coup de grace. But satellite phones and the Internet were crucial. Today, most likely, Mobutu would have fallen much faster.

In Tunisia, the trigger was Mohammed Bouaziz, a small-town street vendor with a college education whose permit police revoked. A month ago, he burned himself to death.

A flurry of postings compared spreading poverty with Ben Ali’s opulent wealth, excoriating his wife for enriching her large extended family with public funds.

Al Jazeera moved in quickly, offering daily, detailed coverage of mounting protests. One by one, other news organizations picked up the story.

Finally, a mob stormed Ben Ali’s beach palace compound at Hammamet, torching lavish furnishings and setting free his prized horses.

The question now is, what next? Popular uprisings leave opposing sectors grappling for power. Already, dozens have died as police, the army and self-styled vigilantes battle for the streets.

An interim government has already been eclipsed, and nothing is clear about where events will lead.

For the moment, however, the euphoria extends far beyond Tunisia.

The New York Times quoted a blogger in Bahrain. “It actually happened in my lifetime!” Mohammed al-Maskati twittered. “An Arab nation woke up and said enough.”  

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