A group of young Tunisians have organized their anti-government protests online, and helped depose a dictator. Mike Giglio talks to the country's leading cyberwarriors. Plus, Christopher Dickey on whether the Tunisia unrest will spread.
For more than a month, protests have swept across Tunisia. But “Àli,” a key organizer, has hardly left his home in a midsize town far away from the capital. In fact, he seldom leaves his desk. In a phone interview, Àli, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest, estimated that he spends at least 18 hours a day in front of his computer running a Facebook page that has become one of the primary sources of information on the protestss.
Gallery: Riots in Tunisia
Àli leads SBZ News, a team of 15 cybersavvy activists who have been collecting dispatches, photos, and video from sources throughout the country, posting it on Facebook, and sending updates over Twitter.
For Àli, speaking just hours after Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country by plane, the results have made his effort worth the risk.
“Yes, I’m worried,” he says. “But I’m ready to sacrifice. Not just to get rid of Ben Ali. But also to feel free—and to say what I believe.”
After the protests began last month, the government began blocking critical news sites and Facebook pages created by protesters. The current site is the sixth that SBZ has put up, Àli says. The government even phished passwords from Facebook and email accounts, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders reports that at least five bloggers have been arrested.
Yet the young Tunisians have been firing off dispatches all the same—the government’s long-standing censorship policies have trained a generation of people like Àli in the art of cybersubversion.
Analysts say the Tunisian government’s ability to police the Web takes a back seat only to China and Iran, and getting around the infamous censors can be daunting. Àli uses proxies, encryption, and virtual private networks that help to circumvent censors. “We connect through anonymous names,” Àli says, adding the unstable political situation in his country makes all the precautions necessary. “Right now, this call—the government can record it.”
He also does what journalists are trained to do—trying to verify the information he receives. When possible, he drives to the scene for confirmation. Activist and blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, for her part, began traveling across the country to take photos and video of both the protests and people she says were killed in the ensuing government crackdowns.
“I’m ready to sacrifice. Not just to get rid of Ben Ali. But also to feel free—and to say what I believe.”
“There are no journalists doing this. And moreover, the official media started to tell lies about what was happening,” Ben Mhenni says, adding that she elected to continue blogging under her real name. “Even if you use a nickname, they can reach you,” she says. “You give an example to other people. They say, ‘Look, she’s not afraid.’”
As during Iran’s Green Revolution, the primary function of social media has been to get around the government’s iron grip on information flows. International media can pull the information from sites like Àli’s, then broadcasts it back into Tunisia via satellite TV, a process in which Al Jazeera in particular has played a critical role. Social media, along with SMS and traditional word-of-mouth, has also been an important tool to coordinate the grassroots protests which don’t really have any leaders yet. There is no political party or unifying figure behind the demonstrations, which were going on for almost a month before people outside the country started to take note.
Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian exile in Berlin who runs Nawaat.org, another key aggregator of information from the protests, says that with an Internet-savvy population and half of the country’s 3.6 million Internet users on Facebook, Tunisia’s online activism complement the activism on the ground. “It’s very grassroots, in both the online and the offline world,” he says. “On the ground people are gathering friends who trust each other. And online people trust each other. ”