So far the events in Tunisia have not been dubbed a “Twitter revolution,” even though, of course, Tunisians are using digital tools to document and discuss the protests and riots that have brought down their government. In many ways this is a welcome development, which has placed the focus properly on popular mobilization, where Arabs have for the first time in decades used the power of mass protest to bring down an unpopular autocrat. The surprising thing is that it’s happening in Tunisia at all, and that it took so long for the world to take notice (the unrest has been ongoing for weeks).
Tunisia has long been touted as an exception in the Middle East. With its lavish beaches teeming with European tourists, its relatively open economy, and its high degree of insulation from trends of transnational terrorism, Tunisia is probably the last place you would look for a popular revolution in the region. Egypt and Algeria, with their population bulges and impoverished millions, or Morocco, with its somewhat competitive elections, would have seemed, even a few weeks ago, much more likely places to see unrest on the scale that has come to Tunisia in recent days. The events in Tunisia should certainly make scholars double-check their certainties about the entrenched nature of authoritarian rule in the Middle East, and the hopelessness of democratization, views that have become the norm in both the academy and in policy circles over the last decade. The simmering discontent just under the surface should also make us question the nature of successful governance and development in this region.
The sudden departure of Ben Ali today also highlights what I see as the role that digital tools have played in this drama. It is not a question of whether Twitter was used to “organize” these street protests. Is that even an empirical question that can be answered at this point? What we see in Tunisia, as we saw in Iran, and in Moldova, and in countless other places across the world, is a failure of authoritarian elites to control the narrative. It was only yesterday that Ben Ali sought to reassure the country that everything was ok, that he regretted the small number of casualties. He seemed to really believe that offering to step down in three years was going to fix this. And yet word kept slipping out, through Youtube videos and blog posts, that in fact everything was not ok, that violence by security services was widespread, and that control was slipping out of Ben Ali’s hands. It was just Monday, after all, that the sclerotic Ben Ali was telling the world, “The events were the work of masked gangs that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked.” Well guess what, anyone with any Internet connection could see that Ben Ali was lying through his teeth.
And now Ben Ali is gone. Whether this is a regime change, or merely a shuffle to placate the protestors, remains to be seen. After all, the only thing that has happened so far is a change of personnel, which is a long way away from a genuine move toward democracy. But it is clear that the technocrats of the Middle East are safe in their dream palaces only so long as their citizens stay out of the streets and out of their way. And it is also clear that thanks to digital media, there is no way left to lie to those citizens about what’s happening.