Tunisia: A Single Tweet Can Start A Prairie Fire!

From the Nayan Chanda in Times of India today:

Analysing the prospect of revolution by China's oppressed peasants, Chairman Mao once wrote that a single spark can start a prairie fire. The recent internet-assisted uprising in Tunisia that led its long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country may now make other autocratic Arab rulers wonder if it is the time of a single tweet that will start a prairie fire in their lands. At the Arab League meeting this week, its secretary general warned that the tinder was dry. "The Arab soul," he said, "is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession...The Arab citizen has entered a stage of anger that is unprecedented."

It continues:

The protests were preceded by a cyber war fought between the government censors and Tunisian and foreign hacktivists. As the government had total control of the media, the ingenious opponents fought back with proxy servers, virtual private networks and encryption. Images of violent suppression uploaded via thousands of YouTube clips, often relayed on Al Jazeera, were watched by angry citizens who coordinated protests with tens of thousands of Twitter messages an hour. The power of the internet was recognised by the emerging new power when a 33-year-old dissident blogger, Slim Amamou, was selected as the minister of youth and sports in the new interim government. Only days earlier, Amamou was handcuffed to a chair in the ministry of interior, subjected to psychological torture for a week.

The airing of the leaked US cables that detailed the revulsion of foreign governments for the country's venal rulers may have added to the situation's combustibility. The regime's opponents set up a site TuniLeaks.org to aggregate and translate WikiLeaks cables about the Ben Ali regime's corruption and human rights violations - the cables that the regime sought to block. One cable summing up the venality of Ali and his family was headlined 'What's Yours Is Mine'. The US ambassador wrote, "Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants."

When the regime sought to blunt the media campaign by hacking into Facebook accounts and deleting critical material, international supporters of Tunisian bloggers mobilised. The 'Anonymous' retaliated by their 'Operation Tunisia' - a massive denial of service attack on Tunisian government sites. But the real spark came when Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate, set himself on fire in protest after police confiscated his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart. Despite, or perhaps because of the brutal repression that killed nearly a hundred people, the protests swelled. In the end, when the army chief refused to shoot on civilians, the game was over for the fifth-term president.

BTW Tunisian Army leader, Gen. Rachid Ammar who ordered his troops not to fire on their own people and then resisted the temptation to seize power for himself, gets my personal 'person of the week' award.

Ben Ali fled to France but France slammed the door in his face. Wouldn't let him land. Ben Ali had every right to be surprised, the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy had backed him to the hilt till this last minute. As Middle East Online reported:

France's ties with Ben Ali's Tunisia went far beyond "non-interference". In 2008, rights groups criticised Sarkozy for praising the regime "for opening up the democratic space."

And last week, when rights groups were already reporting police had shot dead dozens of protesters, Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie suggested France could train the force to better maintain order.

A private French supplier's shipment of new equipment for the Tunisian police, including tear gas grenades of the type that killed a French journalist, was halted at Paris airport only hours before Ben Ali fled.

Now they were singing another tune. "Non-interference and support for freedom and democracy are at the heart of our foreign policy," President Nicolas Sarkozy said through a spokesman as they sent Ben Ali scurrying off to Saudi Arabia where he finally found refuge. This caused one Tunisian to Tweet

“What an irony that a guy who banned veils should end up with the Wahhabis.”

The international financial network maintained it's support for Ben Ali till the last minute also. According to the WSJ "Moody's Investor Service Inc. downgraded Tunisia's sovereign rating by one notch Wednesday and changed the country's outlook to negative from stable, citing political instability caused by the toppling of the previous government." This will make it harder and more expensive for the new government to borrow money.

"So what?" some will say. It is the job of Moody's to look out for investors not cuddle new governments. But that is exactly my point. Civil and social instability do make for a negative investment environment, so why didn't Moody's lower Tunisia's bond rating when blood was flowing in the streets and the stock exchange was being denied the Internet by hackers? Why do they lower it only now, after the thorn has been removed and the wound is starting to heal?

History is full of irony and unintended consequents so I hope Ben Ali has a sense of humor because he is certainly the victim of one of his own making. Ben Ali planned to make big money off of the Internet in Tunisia. He built the most advanced fiber optic grids in North Africa, and he created one of the most Internet savvy populations in the region. 35% of all Tunisians use the Internet and 15% are on Facebook.

One observer considered the effect of the Internet on the Jasmine Revolution as follows:

Let’s take the Internet out of the equation. Groups of Tunisian protesters would not have been able to organise themselves so quickly; images of unrest in other towns and cities across the country would not have been there to galvanise the ranks of rioters by showing them their compatriots were taking the fight to the authorities; Ben Ali would have found it easier to kill the unrest in its infancy as state television would have spoon-fed viewers the official line while international channels would not have been able to broadcast mobile phone footage they retrieved from the web. Word would have spread more slowly, buying Ben Ali precious time.

Tunisian hackers started playing a visible role in Tunisia's freedom struggle as early as 2004 when Astrubal remixed Apple's 1984 ad with Ben Ali as Big Brother. The video went viral in Tunisia. He also made use of Internet plane-spotting groups to track the president's plane around the world and then published a Google map showing all the unreported places the President's plane was visiting. That went viral too.

There can now be little doubt that the hackers played a critical role in the Jasmine Revolution but Bernard Henry-Levy of the Huffington Post has got it all wrong when he says:

The motor of this revolution was, obviously, not the proletariat. [his emphases] Nor was it the new or the long-standing poor. It was not even exclusively these famous middle class citizens with diplomas to spare, who felt betrayed by Ben Ali. No. It was the internauts, the web surfers, users of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others. They are the men and women who, armed with a smartphone, covered the streets of Tunis to film the repression, the insurrection. They are the Anonymous,

And just who are these hackers when they are not on their home computers? They are workers, mostly in computer or Internet related jobs. And who is the middle class, when they are not shop keepers and small business people? They are well paid workers, often in a high tech industry. And who are the poor, when they finally do land a job? They are workers. The proletariat are not greasy little men with French accents, they are workers. This revolution is one that seems to led by the proletariat in Tunisia. It has been greatly facilitated by a high tech international working class movement including many Tunisian hackers who have chosen to remain Anonymous.

The conditions that led to this revolt are not unique to Tunisia. High unemployment and rising food prices affect everyone in the region. Throughout North Africa people are being motivated by what has happened in Tunisia and are on the move. There have been widespread protests in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and even Jordan where the Jerusalem Post noted:

BARELY REPORTED by the local media, last Friday’s demonstrations did, however, force the government to implement some new economic measures, such as the introduction of competition laws to prohibit overpricing and tougher punishments for offenders, the promise of stiffer consumer protection and even some tax reductions on fuel and items such as rice and sugar.

The Palestinian Authority security forces were successful in scuttling a rally in support of Tunisia on the West Bank, assaulting a young demonstrator for waving a Tunisian flag, but other regional police agencies have not fared as well. In the last 10 days, nine Egyptian protesters have either set themselves on fire or attempted to. On Tuesday, Obama called Mubarak to tell him every thing's alright. This week hackers have been getting out and getting up video of a growing protest movement in Libya, Muammar Qaddafi hopes his people will fear change, telling them “Tunisia now lives in fear, families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American revolution.” I think it is Qaddafi that is now living in fear.

As Anonymous starts unofficial recruiting for OpLibya and starting discussions of a possible OpAlgeria, every dictator in the region is worrying that the dominoes will start to fall. Even the Economist has to ask, "Ali Baba gone, but what about the 40 thieves?" and wonders if "it is not too far-fetched to conjure a sweeping wave of change, much as in Europe in 1989."

North African Dominos?
North African Dominos?

Here is a recap of my other DKos dairies on this subject:
Tunisia: A Single Tweet Can Start A Prairie Fire!
Anonymous plans Op Swift Assist in Tunisia
Arrested Pirate Party Member Becomes Tunisian Minister
Is Libya Next? Anonymous Debates New Operation
Tunis: This Photo was Taken 66 Minutes Ago
The WikiLeaks Revolution: Anonymous Strikes Tunisia
EMERGENCY: DKos Must Act Now to Protect Tunisian Bloggers!
Free Software & Internet Show Communism is Possible
BREAKING - Digital Sit-Ins: The Internet Strikes Back!
Cyber War Report: New Front Opens Against Internet Coup d'état
Operation PayBack: 1st Cyber War Begins over WikiLeaks
The Internet Takeover: Why Google is Next
BREAKING: Goodbye Internet Freedom as Wikileaks is Taken Down
BREAKING NEWS: Obama Admin Takes Control of Internet Domains!
Things Even Keith Olbermann Won't Cover - UPDATE: VICTORY!!!
Stop Internet Blacklist Bill Now!
Sweet Victory on Internet Censorship: Senate Backs Off!
Internet Engineers tell the Senate to Back Off!
Why is Net Neutrality advocate Free Press MIA?
Obama's Internet Coup d'état
Julian Assange on Threat to Internet Freedom