You might not know it from the coverage of the American media, but there are protests going on in Tunisia right now that threaten to topple the authoritarian government that has ruled there for more than half a century. A bit less than a month ago, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest over his mistreatment at the hands of Tunisia’s brutally repressive police. His act awoke a latent anger among the Tunisian people over both the government’s repression and economic prosperity that has not been widely shared– despite 5% GDP growth in recent years, unemployment is well into the double-digits, and away from the prosperous coast, Tunisia’s interior remains underdeveloped.
Ben Ali, Tunisia’s current leader, has cracked down on the protests, and shut down the state-controlled media, but the protests continue, confirmed by reports that have snuck past the country’s censors via social media, while mobile phone videos illustrate the violence that has led to at least 35 deaths. The use of new media seemed to catch the government off-guard at first, they have caught on quickly. In a release yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalists described Tunisia as the “undisputed leader” of online repression in the Maghreb:
According to CPJ’s analysis, the country’s state-owned Internet bandwidth provider, the Tunisian Internet Agency has been spying on and interfering with its customers’ access to private e-mail and social networking sites, including Facebook, Gmail, and Yahoo. Individuals have reported that these sites’ pages have either been blocked entirely, or been manipulated to include malicious code that collects private usernames and passwords and then relays them to the agency. The accounts of bloggers and journalists have subsequently been broken into using these stolen credentials, and content and accounts deleted, including Facebook pages administrated by local journalists as well as the account of local online video journalist Haythem El Mekki.
Bloggers and journalists have been detained and imprisoned, and while Facebook remains online and available as the only remianing tool for video sharing, it’s likely that the government is watching online activitiy and taking advantage of Facebook’s social graph to identify and surveil protestors. While new technologies are undoubdedly providing powerful new tools to protestors, Tunisia’s government also finds itself with valuable new information and methods at its fingertips. The NY Times reports today that protestors have overwhelmed police in one coastal city near the capital. It’s hard to imagine such a long-standing dictatorship falling so quickly, but it’s becoming harder to ignore the extraordinary sacrifices of ordinary Tunisians in the streets.