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The other dimension of the virtual space in the revolution of freedom in Tunisia: from Facebook to Streetbook

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By Dr. Samir Garbaya*: The Revolution that started in Tunisia on December 18, 2010 is having major geostrategic implications. A paradigm shift is now forcing the West to reconsider where it stood prior and during the revolution. The West was overwhelmed by the issue of stability and unquestionably supported repressive regimes in the Arab world.

During his reign, Tunisia’s Ben Ali was marketing to the West the stability of the country and his deep involvement in the war against religious fundamentalism. The Tunisian revolution revealed that stability proposed by Ben Ali was just an illusion hiding decades of severe economic chaos and anger fueled by repression. The 23 years of repression and human rights abuses, widespread political corruption, and rampant nepotism led to the revolution of freedom. For over four weeks the Tunisian people were pushing towards a real rupture from decades of secular authoritarianism.

Ben Ali left the country on the 14th January 2011, a date that will be for ever marked in the history of Tunisia and the Arab world. The self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed el-Bouazazi, on December 17, 2010 after his produce cart had been seized by the police marked the initial riots. This personal drama was followed by the revolt of the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid spreading to several regions and then to the capital. The Union of Tunisian workers (UGTT) and a group of lawyers created through demonstrations an alliance and structural organization between socioeconomic classes. But the Internet also played a significant role.

The Tunisian population is 10.5 million of which 25% are internet users. Social networks and mobile phones played an important role in the exchange of information between people and international TV channels in a country where internet traffic was controlled by the regime. Users and particularly anti-government activists were forced to use the less-secured http protocol allowing the government to access and shutdown accounts without user consent or knowledge.

It was stated in the early 1980s that the microelectronics age and information technology will revolutionize human life. In recent years, with the development of Internet phenomena such as Facebook and Twitter, social network theory has become more focused on the many ways that people interrelate and communicate via the various social networking platforms. It is clear that digital social networks and cell phones played an important role in driving the iron-fisted ruler Ben Ali from power. Before the Tunisian uprising, the young Tunisians were struggling to communicate using Facebook because of the government internet censorship. Following the self-immolation of Mohammed el-Bouazizi, the populist uprising sent a strong message of freedom to the world. This message was sent not by Facebook only but in the streets of the Tunisian cities … Streetbook!

Users from countries where the freedom of expression is banned are particularly attracted to Web-based social networks. Facebook is the most widely used network in Tunisia. Despite its limitation to the exchange of text messages and recorded videos about police crackdowns during the revolution, Facebook created an efficient virtual communication space with an impressive social presence. This was measured in terms of the response times to network postings. In November 2010, the average response time to react to a Facebook posting was 4 days. After the self-immolation of Mohamed el-Bouazazi average response times were 8 hours by December 18th, 2 hours by January 1st, and down to a stunning 3 minutes by January 14th as Ben Ali left Tunisia.

The effective use of Facebook to organise mass demonstrations in the cities and the capital of Tunisia leads to contemplating visions for the future of social networks and their role in modern society. Their success in playing a crucial role in hosting fruitful debates between individuals and organized civil society could generate new needs and uses. It is not excluded that the mediated success and increased popularity of social networking sites could attract harmful users in order to thwart all efforts of real political change or spread the fear of insecurity among the population. Misinformation, such as the poisoning of drinking water, was posted on Facebook during the weeks of protests against the authoritarian government of Ben Ali. However, as the life-blood of democracy is the meeting and sharing of hearts and minds, social networks can be the space for focus groups to discuss issues of democracy such as the transition form a mono-party regime to a multi-party society. It is important to take this opportunity to make of social networks a crucial centre of democracy as democracy is now the only safe path for the world to solve the current multifaceted crisis. This is a way to reject the claims of stability and battle against extremism that reproduce fear instead of promoting dialogue.

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