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Internet Powers Tunisian Protests

A student-run Facebook page shows an image depicting the Tunisian national flag smeared in red on a computer screen, 11 Jan 2011.

A student-run Facebook page shows an image depicting the Tunisian national flag smeared in red on a computer screen, 11 Jan 2011.

The grassroots demonstrations that ousted Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali were fueled by a young, Internet-savvy generation of bloggers. But can this so-called cybernet revolt be a model for the Arab world?

It is being called the Jasmine Revolution; but some call it the Facebook Revolution. Facebook posts, tweets, blog entries and e-mails mobilized weeks of protests across the North African country of Tunisia against the autocratic regime of long-time president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

They culminated in massive, nation-wide demonstrations Friday that drove Ben Ali into exile.

On the streets of the capital, young Tunisians like 27-year-old telecommunications workers Marouen Gara, have no doubt about the newest weapon for change - cyberspace.

Gara calls it an Internet revolution. Bloggers overcame Tunisia's censors and the state-controlled media to send out their grievances about the lack of democracy in Tunisia around the country and the world.

Ben Ali's authoritarian government had little tolerance for Internet freedom. It closed down many sites and arrested bloggers.

But young Tunisians like Salouah Dalhoumi, sitting at a cyber cafe in Tunis, found ways to get their message out. She says Tunisian authorities tried first to block cell phone videos of December killings of protesters, which sparked a national revolt.

"He [made] a firewall to filter this video," said Dalhoumi. "But we can make upload and we can download it in the laptop and after we give it to the people."

The Middle East and North Africa programs head for London's Chatham House policy institute, Claire Spencer, says ultimately Tunisia's youths proved cleverer than government censors.

"The moment something is banned, someone is breaking, going around it." said Spencer. "So it has been counterproductive in recent years as a control strategy."

The cyber messages sped around the world, connecting Tunisia's diaspora to the events in their home country. Mohamed Ben Hazouz, a software engineer living in Paris, read them. He flew back to Tunis early Friday to participate in the massive demonstrations that ended up ousting Ben Ali.

"I think as a software engineer, it is the first cybernet revolution in the world," he said. "In the new world of the Internet it was done from Africa."

Some of the same ingredients creating this so-called cybernet revolution in Tunisia are present elsewhere in the Arab world - authoritarian governments, high unemployment rates, Internet cafes and a large population of well educated, restless youths who frequent them.

"Whether they will coalesce into something parallel to what we have seen in Tunisia in the immediate future is questionable," said Claire Spencer. " But I think the long-term trend is - this is a generation that is educated, that is well informed, that will be more demanding of their rights to participate, to have a civic role in their states. And not to sit through gerrymandered elections and the lack of representation politically and lack of participation in the economy."

Tunisia's Internet revolution, if it can be called that, is still going on. What lessons it will ultimately offer to the rest of the Arab world remain an open question.

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