Homeland Security

Internet poses threat to Authoritarian Regimes
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Jan , 2011

The Jasmine Revolt:  The story of Tunisia gives one hope that oppressive regimes can be overthrown by the power of people mobilised to fight injustice without recourse to violence or civil war. Today, the simple cell phone and the Internet are advancing freedom despite the attempts by tyrannical governments to quash their influence. From China to the United States governments are either attempting to control the Internet completely — as in China — or laying plans to do so — Like Obama’s FCC in the U.S.A.

But while governments attempt to control the net, people also develop the skills to thwart such controls. Recent examples are the Cedar Revolution in Syria and the Green Revolution in Iran where the power of communication tools like the cell phone and social media like Facebook and Twitter kept people informed and assisted in mobilising the masses to oppose tyranny. In Tunisia, the social media played a significant role in toppling a dictator and ending 24 years of repressive rule.

The Internet penetration in Tunisia is roughly 35%, and cell phone usage is reportedly upward of 95%”¦The Internet elite were connected to one another, and they were able to leverage those ties to get information out. People could link with each other through social networks to figure out what was happening.

The social media obviously did not cause the revolution. It simply assisted to help inform the protestors about what was going on. While the role of the Internet and social media in this Tunisian event will be debated endlessly, the fact is that it was the key to the final outcome and has shown conclusively that the Internet simply cannot be fully controlled by an oppressive regime. As Jasmine flowers are a national symbol in Tunisia, the uprising against oppression could well be termed the ‘Jasmine Revolt’. In a sense, it could also be called the Twitter Revolution, for Tunisia has now joined Iran and Moldova in using the social media to telling effect.

The Internet penetration in Tunisia is roughly 35%, and cell phone usage is reportedly upward of 95%. To get around the government’s censorship efforts, Tunisia already had a very strong online anti-censorship movement prior to the revolution. The Internet elite were connected to one another, and they were able to leverage those ties to get information out. People could link with each other through social networks to figure out what was happening. In Iran, the information flow was more of a jumble and hence the Iranian uprising was not successful.

In Tunisia, the message got out to the masses. Also different from the case in Iran, is that the information that was being put on Twitter and Facebook was often used by Al-Jazeera in their reporting and thus information spread across the world. Al-Jazeera’s coverage, which was broadcast into Tunisia via satellite, offered an alternative to the censored, state-run media.  Thousands of “citizen-journalists” uploaded photos, videos, texts, appeals and more to social media sites, which were then re-broadcast by Al-Jazeera. Social media thus enabled the revolting citizens in Tunisia to bypass censored state media and talk to each other.

The social media however, is merely a tool in the hands of the people to fight repression. It neither causes a revolution nor guarantees its success. It is just one variable among many that determine the outcome of social protests. In Tunisia, people used text messaging (SMS), emails and social media sites for logistics, warnings of police deployments, calls for blood donation as well as for organising protests. This brings out starkly the power of communication tools in mass mobilisation and marks a new era of social protests. When Ben Ali looked out a window and saw the streets filled with demonstrators — a dictator’s worst nightmare — he knew it was time to leave. This is why there is concern in other repressive regimes as evidenced by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s reaction, blaming the Internet for undermining the values of his people and causing them to not appreciate his and Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

The Jasmine Revolt holds important lessons for Asia as Tunisians grievances were as specific as universal: rising food prices, corruption, unemployment, the yawning divide between ruler and ruled and the repression of a state that viewed almost all dissent as subversion.

The tumultuous events in Tunisia began on 17 Dec 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor 26 year old fruit vendors goods were confiscated by a 45-year-old female municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid, who reportedly also slapped him in the face. Bouazizi then went to the municipal building to get back his property but was beaten again. He then walked to the governor’s office, but failed to get an audience. In protest, he set himself on fire, in front of the governor’s house, and died 18 days later of burn injuries on 4th January 2011. Bouazazi’s was a symbolic protest by one man against injustice, but it caught the imagination of an entire nation. Protests started all over Tunisia against the government and on January 14, ten days after Bouazizi’s death, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country.

A dictator who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 24 years had been ousted by the power of the people, the revolution rippling beyond Tunisia, shaking other authoritarian Arab states, whose young people too are getting frustrated by a stifling bureaucracy and an impenetrable and intimidating security apparatus. Hours after Ben Ali fled, a Lebanese broadcaster, in triumphant tones, ended her report on the first instance of an Arab leader to be overthrown in popular protests by quoting a famous Tunisian poet….“And the people wanted life,” she said, “and the chains were broken.” The broadcaster, Abeer Madi al-Halabi, then went on to say that the day’s seismic events in Tunisia would serve as “a lesson for countries where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch

former Director of CLAWS and is currently the editor of SALUTE Magazine.

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