Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tunisia: The First WikiLeaks Revolution?

If you haven't been paying attention to international news the past few weeks, you've missed an amazing and important story. Protestors in the small North African country of Tunisia have driven the long-time president, Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali,  from the country and brought about a revolution that is gripping the entire Arab world. As the interim prime minister (and former close ally of Ben Ali) tries to cobble together a stable government, analysts are debating whether this is the first "WikiLeaks revolution" (Google "Tunisia wikileaks revolution" and you'll see a number of commentators weighing in). Are they right?

The catalyst that provoked the protests was a 26-year old street vendor named Muhammad Boazizi who, after refusing to pay a bribe, was harassed and arrested by a female government inspector and shortly after killed himself by setting himself on fire. (This New York Times story offers the most vivid details of his story so far in the mainstream American media.) Social media and Arabic TV networks (especially al-Jazeera) picked up the story. Text and picture messages spread the word and helped organize protests. There's no question that information technology helped speed up the process of ousting Ben Ali. But did it cause it?

The frustrations of ordinary Tunisians were no surprise to those familiar with the country. In March 2005, during what some called an "Arab spring" (of popular mobilization in Arab countries), I was able to spend a few days in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. I arrived just a day after large protests had erupted, and in the streets I saw buses full of riot police waiting to contain any new demonstrations. A U.S. diplomat told me about serious corruption in high places. One reason that there so few multinational food chains like McDonalds or Pizza Hut in the country, he said, was that they were facing constant pressures to pay off corrupt officials. Rather than pay constant bribes, they stayed away.

University students were very careful about what they said, because the secret police had informants everywhere, but they were deeply unhappy with the regime even then.

Corruption was not news in Tunisia, but last month WikiLeaks unveiled several U.S. State Department cables containing lurid details of wealth and extravagance that outraged Tunisians outside the president's inner circle. Chief among them was a cable in which the U.S. ambassador reported on a party he attended at the large beach compound of Ben Ali's son-in-law, where evidence of decadence and excess abounded: Roman artifacts such as columns and frescoes, a carved "lion's head from which water pours into a pool," a lavish dinner,  talk of private jets, and a caged live tiger that ate four chickens a day. Although word-of-mouth and rumor on the street talked of the president's cronies being a mafia, this was colorful and official confirmation of extreme corruption.

But can we say that WikiLeaks caused the revolution (as Andrew Sullivan and Elizabeth Dickinson and others suggested)? I don't think so, because conditions on the ground were the real frustration, and the immediate catalyst was Mohammed Bouazizi's suicide. But the WikiLeaks cables spread details of the corruption more widely and quickly--and they demonstrated that the U.S. and the French governments were doing nothing to stop it. People realized that they were on their own.

Furthermore, social media--as even skeptics like Evgeny Morozov, Dan Murphy, and Timothy Garton Ash admit--helped to facilitate popular mobilization.

As I argue in the book, the globalization of politics is a mixed bag. The Internet and social media may be speeding up politics around the world, but they are not fundamentally altering the structures of authority vested in the state (at least, not yet). However, they are making it harder for politicians to get away with some of their old ways, as Ben Ali and his cronies found out too late.

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