A 'social-media revolution'?
Commentators agree that the social media and blogosphere contributed to events in Tunisia. But to what extent, asks Mourad Teyeb in Tunis
According to many commentators, it was the Internet even before action on the streets that played the largest role in forcing long-time Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali out of power last week.
Since the beginning of the popular uprising in Tunisia, starting in the town of Sidi Bouzid in mid-December, social networks, mainly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, helped organise protests and fuel online rage across the country.
They have also contributed to bringing news of the protesters' anger and the demonstrations in Tunis and across the rest of the country to the outside world.
People across the Arab world have turned to Internet social networks and the blogosphere to cheer on the unprecedented anti-government protests that have also hit other countries beside Tunisia.
The Internet has had a major role to play in attracting world attention to what has been happening in Tunisia, a country known for its repressive dictatorship, absence of freedom and the authorities' war against the Internet.
During the demonstrations that led up to last week's dramatic events and the flight of the former president, more than 3,000 videos on the networking site YouTube were tagged with the words "Sidi Bouzid", the town where many of the protests took place and where Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, an unemployed graduate, died in flames on 17 December after police seized his unlicensed fruit-and-vegetable stand.
Despite rigid censorship, Tunisian protesters have also been aided by foreign online activists, such as the collective called Anonymous, and by satellite TV networks broadcasting outside the country.
"Allies of the regime have reportedly also engaged equally enthusiastically, utilising phishing, censorship and hacking against activists," said a spokesperson for Anonymous, which advocates for greater democracy worldwide.
The Internet social media in particular were a major battleground between Bin Ali's government and those demonstrating against it.
Tunisians have been flocking to Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms in order to get news, photos and videos out of the country.
Most commentators believe that the social media had an important effect on events in Tunisia, and some believe that what happened in Tunisia could even be called a "social-media revolution".
"In a country where the government has had such tight control over the Internet and the press, new media like Twitter and Facebook have been very important," said Ridha Kéfi, manager of Kapitalis, an influential Tunisian news website.
"You could call it the Sidi Bouzid uprising, the Tunisian revolt or the Jasmine Revolution. However, for me 'the social-media revolution' is the best name for what has happened and is happening in Tunisia," Kéfi said.
"When added to the satellite TV channels, such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and France 24, the blogosphere and social networks helped to take to the whole world the scenes of massive crowds in small towns in quite remote areas. All this was crucial for the organising effort," said Khaled Haddad, a Tunisian blogger.
For more than a month, reports by social-media users and thousands of amateur videos taken on the ground have been used to feed TV coverage of the events worldwide.
"This revolution is 'Facebooked'," summed up Hanen Guirat, a young reporter for Assabah, a Tunisian daily.
However, other commentators do not agree. According to Mohamed Jouili, a Tunisian sociologist, "while WikiLeaks, Twitter and Facebook might have contributed to kicking Bin Ali and his regime out of the country, for me it is most of all the Tunisian people who did it."
Jouili has published many influential articles on trends among Tunisian young people, and while he admits that "the social media, mobile phones and satellite channels made it much easier for the voices of Tunisian youth to reach the world as a whole, these things in themselves cannot keep people on the streets facing police bullets for four weeks."
"This is not about Facebook or WikiLeaks or Al-Jazeera," warned lawyer and activist Mohamed Laabidi. "It's about Tunisians being fed up with years of corruption, oppression and marginalisation."
One Twitter user commented that the dozens of Tunisians who were killed in the recent demonstrations against the former regime did not die so they could enjoy Internet freedom.
"Mohamed Bouazizi did not set himself on fire because he could not get onto YouTube," the blogger wrote.
During the 23 years of Bin Ali's rule, the former president and his entourage turned Tunisia into what the Western media have referred to as a "police state". Bin Ali, of military background, was famous for his family's cupidity and illegal enrichment and his rejection of any sort of criticism or dissent.
In 2005, an NGO, the Open Net Initiative (ONI), reported an increase in the number of websites blocked in Tunisia by the Bin Ali regime and the continuing crackdown on social media, dissident blogs and opposition websites.
According to the ONI's 2010 report, the Tunisian government filtered "several categories of content pervasively", placing it on the same rank as China and Iran. Experts had also said that the watchdogs of the former regime used the American filtering software SmartFilter.
In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a campaigning group, placed Tunisia just after Vietnam and Saudi Arabia as one of "the world's most dangerous places from which to blog".
Strict surveillance was enforced over the Internet, and many journalists and bloggers were prosecuted under Tunisia's press code, which bans "offending the president, disturbing order, and publishing what the government perceives as false news."
The former regime also restricted the media by controlling registration of print media and licensing of broadcasters, refusing permission to critical outlets and controlling the distribution of public-sector advertising.
Journalists could be charged with vague violations of the penal code and even online dissidents could face severe punishment. Tunisian human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou was sentenced to three- and-a-half years in prison in 2005 for publishing a report in which he accused the government of torturing Tunisian prisoners on a banned website.
Despite this censorship activity under the former regime, Tunisia is considered to have one of the most-developed telecommunications infrastructures in North Africa and one of the lowest prices for broadband subscription in Africa.
In October 2008, there were 1.7 million Internet users in Tunisia, 114,000 of whom had broadband subscriptions. Some 84 per cent of Tunisian Internet users accessed the Internet at home, while 75.8 per cent used the Internet at work, and 24 per cent used public Internet cafés.
The question now is whether these Internet tools that have been so useful in overthrowing the former government will now be used to combat any attempts by future governments once again to stifle freedom of expression.
Commentators feel that the Tunisian experience over recent weeks reflects a growing clash in the Arab world between media reformists and the public on the one hand and repressive policy-makers and authoritarian regimes on the other.
However, they also believe that in the light of the Tunisian government's overthrow, some Arab governments could also step up their restrictions in the light of what happened in Tunisia, a country that was paradoxically a model of efficient repression both online and offline.