Friday, January 14, 2011

How important is the internet in the Tunisia uprising?

It is important - but how important? This is the crucial question. The demographic is right. A majority of the protesters - so far - have been students and young professionals. Their primary concerns have to do with jobs and a demand for a more open society. And the protestors have been actively using blogs and facebook to connect to each other and with those outside of Tunisia. This very much reminds me of the Lawyers' Movement in Pakistan - which at one point had tremendous promise - before other mainstream politicians diluted it down with compromises. In fact, there are some exact parallels also: Just last week, thousands of Tunisian lawyers staged a protest against the government - and it is hard to imagine that the parallels to Pakistan's Lawyer's movement had not crossed their minds.

But the key question is: Can this spread to other parts in the Middle East? I know this question comes up every time there is a protest like this. But this time there is some success for the protestors. It also appears that these movements are learning from each other. The mode of individual protests are, of course, going to be dependent on the local culture and governmental structure. But it seems to me that some basic ingredients are present in several of the countries in the region:
a) On average, 60% of the population in the Middle East is under 25, b) the jobless rate and dissatisfaction with governments (mostly autocratic) is high, c) internet - especially blogs, Facebook, and Twitter - is heavily tilted toward younger users and it is allowing the youth to be connected not just with each other, but also with others in the region with similar problems, d) government censorships are continuously being challenged with new cyber tools.

And most importantly, the access to the internet and education levels are only going to increase in the coming years. So yes, there it is not completely crazy to think that the Tunisian unrest may shake things up in the region.

So what is the status of internet in Tunisia? According to Internet World Stats, there are 3.6 million internet users out of a population of 10.5 million (34%) - the highest fraction for high population countries in Africa. Oh and there are 1.6 million Facebook users! In comparison, Morocco has 10 million internet users (33% of the population), Algeria has 4.7 million (14%), and Egypt has 17 million internet users (21% of the total population). (Please also this earlier post: Internet for Politics in Egypt and Malaysia).

And internet, like the protests in Iran and Pakistan, played a significant role in the organization and publicity of the protests. From the BBC:
Unions and traditional political groups have played some role. But it is on the internet that a new generation of activists has been credited with driving the movement forward.
This has happened despite increasingly strict controls by a government that, even before the demonstrations, was regarded as unusually zealous in its online censorship.
A steady flow of protest videos, tweets, and political manifestos has continued to make its way onto the web in a variety of languages: Arabic, the Darija Tunisian dialect, French and English.
Some encouragement has come from abroad, including France and other Arab countries. But much has been generated from within Tunisia.
"Our part as tweeple/bloggers or simple social media users is to pass the info, share it and spread the word: when, where it's happening," one Tunisia-based woman who requested anonymity told the BBC by e-mail.
"Then, once the demonstrations take place, we report live on twitter & FB [Facebook] and if some have pictures or videos, we share!" 
Before we get carried away with all this, it is clear that internet is not the only game in town. And there is a big difference between typing on a keyboard versus street protests (Benjamin Geer - had raised this point sometime back) - and some of the protests indeed turned violent in Tunisia in the last few days. Nevertheless, internet is the only medium that is allowing youths to connect from Tunisia to Egypt to Iran to Pakistan. Some change is bound to happen in the presence of these increasing number of globalized youths. Governments struck back in Iran and Pakistan - successfully for the time being. Will the success of protests in Tunisia shake other regional movements as well? I will check the internet for the answer.


Benjamin Geer said...

I think now is the time to apply for a research grant to do a study on political protest in Tunisia, including the role of the Internet. :)

I hope North Africa will now start to get more attention from social scientists. Maybe some North American and European universities will even start to offer courses in Tunisian Arabic.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Hilarious! :-D
I still don't get it. Is internet a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, who wants destabilization in any country?

Benjamin Geer said...

I think Marc Lynch has some reasonable thoughts on the role of the new media environment in Tunisia.

Salman Hameed said...


I agree - Tunisia will be a hot topic for research.

Thanks for the link to Marc Lynch's post. I totally agree with him that satellite stations, such as Al Jazeera, are also equally important, and the effect is cumulative.


It is not about the destabilization of the country. So far, the youth that have been protesting in various parts of the Middle East have been relatively socially progressive and have been making demands for democracy and a more open society. Since most of these countries have autocratic rulers who have stagnated social and economic growth, this is a welcome change. However, as is seen in Tunisia, the important thing is what happens next. Sometimes the "new boss is the same as the old boss".

But the combination of the fact that over 60% of Middle East population is under 25, and mass education and mass communication is increasing at a very rate, we can be sure of major changes in the coming years. We'll have to wait and see if the change will lead to more turmoil or into a more progressive societies...

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