Revolution 2.0: Rebooting Tunisia

This last week was one of the most intense moments for the French and Arabic social media sphere since the arrival of Web 2.0. The Tunisian revolution, which has been growing both on the ground and online since Dec. 17, came to a double climax. Yesterday, dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali announced the immediate end of all Net censorship and then released the last bloggers still in jail. Among them was Slim Amamou, a writer for ReadWriteWeb France and a national hero.

Today, Ben Ali left the country, as of this afternoon his plane is supposedly heading for Saudi Arabia. ReadWriteWeb France has a special relationship with Tunisia and its social media and digital activist scene.

A year ago, after publishing a post written by Jillian C. York about Islamist harassment, we ourself got harassed. After a few months of investigations and many posts, we discovered the Islamists we were facing were, in fact, Ben Ali's Internet police, who were terrorizing the online Tunisian population.

That was nine month ago. This summer, Slim Amamou published a story showing a sophisticated DNS spoofing technique used by Ali's Internet police to steal Tunisians' logins and passwords for Facebook, Gmail and Live.com. It revealed the capabilities of Ben Ali's cyberarmy to the Tunisian people and the French-speaking hacking community. (This force, according to our sources, was made up of at least 600 government men and a few contractors.) Ben Ali's cyber police was in fact operating some a kind of community management - but on a country-wide scale.

Ben Ali poster, Al Kaf, Tunisia, March 2010
We ended up with a healthy Tunisian social network, and very good posts on Egyptian and Tunisian online activism (written by activists), not to mention local Barcamp and TEDx endorsement. When massive demonstrations started in December, we felt concerned and offered help. What happened this last month still needs to be documented, but this will be an easy job, thanks to the massive production of videos and pictures by the Tunisian people, the most Internet ready country in this part of the world, and to careful curation by the activist website Nawaat.org, now a central part of the Tunisian infosphere. (Nawaat was censored until yesterday.)

What happened this week has nothing to do with previous Twitter-revolutions (sorry Iran), and is more about Facebook than Twitter anyway. Social media was not just a tool to communicate and coordinate action, it was a tool to create worldwide support in little time. From a retweet to an Anonymous LOIC attack, a blog post or a translation, millions have shown their support and took action.

Anonymous have proven to be a mature political entity. And although they could do childish stuff again, what they did with #optunisia was, without any doubt, helpful. In Tunisia, not only did many teen turn Anonymous, but the vast majority of the population supported their actions. Beside a few public figures who took action and spoke up, Anonymous was here, in the name of some sort of global consciousness, not only to show the Tunisians the support of millions of people worldwide, but also to help and give a hand.

Those of us who enjoy freedom and democracy should definitely be thankful for that. Tunisia is a young country, with a very high level of education. With a 16% penetration rate - the highest in Africa (with Mauritius) - Facebook is not only hugely popular there, but it was, until yesterday, the only social-anything available. Up to that point, no YouTube, no Flickr, tons of censored websites (including many pages from RWW France), and it was still Africa's most active online community.

Transition will not be easy, but there's a bright future ahead for this country, which will leverage social technologies like no other. Jailing Slim Amamou last week was a terrible mistake for Ben Ali. The founding member of the local Pirate Party, a Net Neutrality advocate, and author in an international and influential blog like ReadWriteWeb, Slim was at the crossroad of a movement that could be mobilized and ready to fight in just a click. And this is precisely what happened.

Free Slim images by hasan.almustafa; window photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter