Tunisia's citizens have spent the last several weeks gathering their collective strength to depose their corrupt president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and his sclerotic regime. Throughout the turmoil, the populace has been tweeting, blogging, and using Facebook. Mindful of how quickly many rushed to brand the 2009 protests in Iran a "Twitter revolution," commentators have held back with Tunisia, emphasizing that the uprising is a product of the passions and convictions of Tunisia's people, not a 140-character status update. That's a good thing. It means our conversations about technology's transformative power are maturing past assumptions that the spread of the Internet means an inexorable spread of democracy.
But now is the time, perhaps, for a little backlash against the backlash. Scrubbing the Internet from the Tunisian people's story leaves us with less than a full picture of this moment.
Disgust has brewed for years in Tunisia. It came to a head in December when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor on the streets of Sidi Bouzid lit himself on fire after being harassed by authorities. Protests, dotted with further acts of self-violence, increased, and with them spread the Twitter hashtag #sidibouzid, tying together the disjointed online conversation. The Tunisian government reacted by cracking down on press coverage, but word -- and video and images -- of the uprising thrived online. A month into the protests, it made a certain kind of sense that, as the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal captured in a photo, we'd see protesters outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington holding a banner depicting Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg alongside the words "good" and "thank you."
The online attention to what is happening in Tunisia hasn't been perfect and has sometimes been chaotic. But as Brian Whitaker, a former Middle East editor for London's Guardian newspaper, noted when a premature rumor of a coup spread on Twitter and blogs, at least it exists. "[Online coverage is] unreliable in comparison to what?" Whitaker wrote. "If you read the Tunisian newspapers and nothing else, you would scarcely be aware that an uprising is taking place." (Not for nothing, a week later, National Public Radio would spread the wrong news that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been killed in the Tucson, Arizona, shootings.)
Joblessness is a factor in the Tunisian uprisings, along with political alienation and the rankling effect of the government's corruption, big and small. Tunisia is also highly educated and fairly well wired. Christopher Hitchens mused last week in Slate that the Tunisia he visited 30 years ago "didn't really trust is citizens to be grownups," and when the Internet came, that distrust turned digital. In her landmark "Internet Freedom" speech delivered at the Newseum a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted Tunisia alongside China and Uzbekistan as countries that had stepped up their online censorship. Tunisia has blocked sites including those for the French newspaper Le Monde, the news network Al Jazeera's Arabic version, local blogs, a dissident blog called Nawaat, and the Paris-based video-sharing site Dailymotion. Online Tunisians regularly mocked "Ammar 404," an anthropomorphizing of the generic error message they encounter when visiting a website that the Tunisian government has, in its wisdom, declared off-limits.
As the protests heated up, the crackdown got worse. When the secure online protocol HTTPS suddenly stopped working for some favorite sites, the idea spread that Tunisian officials were "phishing" for citizens' passwords for such websites as Gmail, Yahoo mail, and Facebook. When WikiLeaks and related sites like TuniLeaks -- which published leaked U.S. State Department cables -- were blocked, the global hacker collective Anonymous targeted the Tunisian government website for takedown. In a panic amid the growing protests, Tunisian officials upped the symbolic value of the Internet even further by detaining online activists including Slim Amamou, Azyz Amamy, Hamadi Kaloutcha, and Sleh Edine Kchouk. Also targeted was Hamada Ben Aoun, a Tunisian rapper who goes by the name El Général who posted a music video online for his pounding rap song "President, Your People are Dying."
The temptation to brand something a "Twitter revolution" comes, in part, because it suggests a clarity in discussing foreign policy missing since the Cold War: What Iran needs is more sneakernets! What Pakistan needs is more mobile social networks! For journalists, of course, the offer of a narrative has appeal, as Columbia Journalism Review's Lauren Kirchner has detailed. And for American foreign-policy observers, championing the Internet as a tool of democracy seems to skip all that unpleasant Cold War heavy-handedness. Clinton's so-called 21st century statecraft approach isn't democracy through the backdoor. It's democracy through infrastructure.
The State Department has put itself in an awkward position with that approach -- politicizing the Internet by aligning it with American values. (Though how knowingly it has set itself up is an open question.) Officially, Tunisia is a friend to the U.S., even if one of the leaked U.S. embassy cables notes that "for too long, Tunisia has skated by." But the State Department was quick to spread word that Tunisia's ambassador had been hauled in to hear concerns about the riots as well as the Tunisian government's phishing activities. Moreover, the line between the foreign-policy establishment and U.S. tech companies is particularly fuzzy these days. A State Department official told reporters earlier this month that Facebook had alerted the U.S. government to Tunisia's meddling. "This is a case of hacking into private accounts," the official said, "stealing passwords and being able to effectively curb individuals' access to social media."
But Tunisia has proved that repressive governments don't particularly need U.S. help in making the Internet political. Just before Ben Ali ultimately fled on a plane, he made a last-ditch attempt to mollify the rebelling masses. "There will be from now on a total freedom of the press," he said in a televised statement, "and a removal of Internet restrictions."
"Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter?" Foreign Policy's Evgeny Morozov blogged. "I think this is the key question to ask. If the answer is 'yes,' then the contribution that the Internet has made was minor; there is no way around it." But that question seems off the mark. Clearly, the Internet doesn't make the dissident. Rather, the dissident makes use of the Internet. What's happening in Tunisia isn't a Twitter or a WikiLeaks revolution. It's just what revolution looks like these days.