By Nayan Chanda
Analysing the prospect of revolution by Chinas oppressed peasants, Chairman Mao once wrote that a single spark can start a prairie fire. The recent internet-assisted uprising in Tunisia that led its long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country may now make other autocratic Arab rulers wonder if it is the time of a single tweet that will start a prairie fire in their lands. At the Arab League meeting this week, its secretary general warned that the tinder was dry. The Arab soul, he said, is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession The Arab citizen has entered a stage of anger that is unprecedented.
It is the first time in history that an Arab ruler has been chased out of power by street demonstrations, and that too without any organisation by a political party. The sheer disgust at the corrupt and repressive regime brought out thousands of men and women to face the army and police. Is it the first Facebook or Twitter revolution Was Ben Ali the first victim of the WikiLeaks revelations Or was it a victory for the hacker-activists or hacktivists as they are known
The protests were preceded by a cyber war fought between the government censors and Tunisian and foreign hacktivists. As the government had total control of the media, the ingenious opponents fought back with proxy servers, virtual private networks and encryption. Images of violent suppression uploaded via thousands of YouTube clips,often relayed on Al Jazeera, were watched by angry citizens who coordinated protests with tens of thousands of Twitter messages an hour. The power of the internet was recognised by the emerging new power when a 33-year-old dissident blogger, Slim Amamou, was selected as the minister of youth and sports in the new interim government. Only days earlier, Amamou was handcuffed to a chair in the ministry of interior, subjected to psychological torture for a week.
The airing of the leaked US cables that detailed the revulsion of foreign governments for the countrys venal rulers may have added to the situations combustibility. The regimes opponents set up a site Tuni-Leaks.org to aggregate and translate WikiLeaks cables about the Ben Ali regimes corruption and human rights violations the cables that the regime sought to block. One cable summing up the venality of Ali and his family was headlined Whats Yours Is Mine. The US ambassador wrote, Whether its cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Alis family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.
When the regime sought to blunt the media campaign by hacking into Facebook accounts and deleting critical material, international supporters of Tunisian bloggers mobilised. The Anonymous retaliated by their Operation Tunisia a massive denial of service attack on Tunisian government sites. But the real spark came when Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate, set himself on fire in protest after police confiscated his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart. Despite, or perhaps because of the brutal repression that killed nearly a hundred people, the protests swelled. In the end, when the army chief refused to shoot on civilians, the game was over for the fifth-term president.
Ironically, it was Ben Ali who, in a bid to promote business, invested in one of the most advanced fiber optic grids in North Africa. Thirty-four per cent of the Tunisian population uses the internet and 15% is on Facebook. Despite tough censorship, existence of this network gave opponents of the regime the opportunity to use tricks like proxies, encryption and virtual private networks to communicate with the world and upload searing images on YouTube.
The internet and social media played a critical role but the spark lit by the self-immolation of the student would not have ignited the prairie fire had the ground not been dry. It was the accumulated anger of two decades of exploitation and corruption brought to the surface by high unemployment (14%),especially among the young (about 30% of the jobless are between age 15 and 29),that provided the flammable mix. The repressed pressure of a muzzled country found its release on the Web, fanning the fire.
Source: Times of India