The seemingly innocuous power of unfettered communication threatens the evils that have plagued human society for thousands of years. Right now, a single voice can be amplified millions of times and transmitted at the speed of light across the globe. Those voices can translate into actions; those actions can change the world.
Our destiny has always been our choice, but as the Internet has grown, we are now more able to make collective decisions towards shaping our collective futures. This is a story of how the people used the power of information to change their world.
On December 7th The Guardian made public a secret US Embassy Cable leaked by WikiLeaks:
“The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. […] His regime has lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. […] anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing. ”
But this was not news to any in Tunisia.
On December 17th, a policewoman confiscated the unlicensed vegetable cart of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to him, but it would be the last. He pleaded with the officer to return the cart with its $200 of goods, but to no avail. The policewoman allegedly slapped the scrawny young man, spat in his face, insulted his dead father, and confiscated the goods.
An hour later, humiliated and dejected Mohamed Bouazizi, who was the breadwinner for his family, stood in front of a Tunisian municipality building, doused himself in fuel, and lit the match that fed the fires of revolution that would change his country forever.
The self-emolation of Mohamed Bouazizi was the tipping point for Tunisians who were sick of a country that, according to the US Dept. of State has a record of human rights abuses. The corrupt security forces arbitrarily arrest and harass Tunisian citizens. The torture and physical abuse of prisoners is common.
The news of Bouazizi’s death spread online, as the mainstream media was limited in what it could share. People took to the streets in protest, and the voice of Bouazizi was amplified. They were met with opposition by government forces, they tweeted, facebooked, and video-blogged their experiences as they encountered the state sponsored beatings of demonstrators. “It became more serious to walk around with a computer than with a Molotov cocktail”, quipped IChemE. Journalists abroad used twitter to get the story: “Twitter taught me everything about the momentous events in Tunisia: the uprising has been hashtagged. ”
The Tunisian government had already blocked nearly all websites belonging to domestic human rights, opposition, and Islamist groups, including discussion sites. The government was in the process of stealing the passwords of the entire country’s Facebook users via a state sponsored phishing attack. Tunisian law allows the government to block Internet content it deems threatening or obscene, but generally it blocks whatever sites it wants. Bloggers were being arrested.
And for all those reasons on January 2nd eight official Tunisian websites, including those of the presidency and the government, were taken offline by a distributed denial of service attack led by “Anonymous” – a leaderless Internet activism collective. Anonymous released an open letter and a piece of software. The letter, addressed to the government of Tunisia, was titled “Payback is a Bitch Isn’t It” The software, when downloaded and installed on any computer, executed a denial of service attack against Tunisian websites. Tunisians, and others, massively downloaded and launched the application.
The Tunisian authorities retaliated by mobilizing 2,000 employees of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI). “Ammar”, the system of official censorship, went to work hunting down and disabling the e-mail and social networking accounts of activists.
The riots on the streets continued and the twitter feed allowed the world to join in on the chants: “We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of God.” The people rose up and the tweets poured in. At least fifty people were killed.
On January 14th President Ben Ali announced that he would not be running for re-election. Declaring, “I have understood you. ” He also promised something Tunisians had been wanting for a long time: Internet freedom. Soon thereafter Internet sites like YouTube and Daily Motion were made available to the public. But that was not enough. Mohammed Bouazizi did not die because he couldn’t post on YouTube, Tunisian citizens didn’t die for net freedom… they had bigger ambitions.
The next day president Ben Ali dissolved his government and went into exile. The event was named the “Jasmine Revolution” by mainstream media. But most young Tunisians prefer: “The Facebook Revolution.” Slim Amamou, an outspoken blogger and activist was asked to join the Tunisian government as Secretary of State for Sports and Youth Affairs. He tweeted his invitation.
The Internet and social media deserve credit for their involvement, but we must remember: the Internet simply catalyzed and facilitated the will of the Tunisian people. It amplified the voices of the pertinacious Tunisians who wanted change.
…In Egypt, where a similar story is unfolding, the government has turned off the Internet.
“It is perhaps its spontaneity, its lacks of designated leaders that give it the feel of a genuine, popular uprising and not an ideologically-driven coup destined to serve the desires of a narrow constituency. It is easy as an Arab, to resign oneself to the fact that the region’s stagnant and sclerotic political systems are immovable and immutable. It is exactly this state of hopelessness and inertia that most of the region’s leaders strive to instill in their people. It kills hope, prevents progress and keeps the leaders in power. So I hope that the leaders across the region take note and that a cold chill runs down their spine as they watch the events in Tunis unfold; perhaps it will make them reconsider their ways.” – From the blog of Syrian Abu Kareemv