Recently a Facebook friend featured an unfamiliar flag as his profile picture; a red crescent held in a vivid red background. Then, alternative news headlines emerged about major turmoil in the country of Tunisia. Next thing I knew, my friend was participating in the civil unrest that broke out there. Through the window opened by social media, I began to feel the outrage and intensity experienced by many people on the other side of the world. A quote from the film V for Vendetta came to me; “Remember, remember the fifth of November; the gunpowder, treason, and plot!” The surreal reports and rapidly changing scenery reported by my friend somewhat blurred the line between reality and fiction.
Beneath the surface of my daily routine, going to work in San Francisco and coming home, a world of huge upheaval began to emerge. I was tapping into a revolt and it felt like magma of the earth pushing up. The Internet became a portal into a place that I have never visited; with connections to friends that I had never met, in far away lands overseas. Over the months, my networking through Facebook, Blogs and Twitter brought like-minded people into my life and provided a place for exchange of thoughts and views on issues that were difficult to address in daily life. I realized that my alliances across borders through this social media, in a way felt deeper than friendships that I have with people that live close by. During this time I would come home from work and quickly go on line to find out if my friend was safe. His long breaks in communication worried me. At the same time, the sense of urgency and danger that was transmitted through his silence grounded me in the immediacy of the events.
Waves of Tunisian flag profile pictures soon began to emerge, like wildfire across the social media sphere, showing solidarity with the Tunisian people. An American friend immediately responded to the crisis with a letter to his congressional representative, calling on the US government to support the uprising. I saw my Facebook and Twitter come alive as people that I had come to know from many countries worked to disseminate information on Tunisia, as if they were taking up the slack of what Western mainstream media was not doing; writing the story from the trenches and from the view of the common people. It was said that, “the revolution will not be televised,” but perhaps in the age of the Internet and global open-source connections, things might be rather different nowadays. Not only will revolution be televised, it will be tweeted and blogged, spreading quickly with immediate updates. The important difference is that virtually anyone anywhere can take part regardless of geographical distance, national identity or borders.
I began to see that I was part of something truly global. I saw people worldwide acting on behalf of the Tunisians. A larger framework of the world that exists beyond borders and outside the halls of power began to emerge.
One example of this global activism was in the spontaneous response of a group called Anonymous. They did a cyber sit-in protest by temporarily disabling many Tunisian government websites right after the unrest broke out. It started as a protest against that government’s blocking WikiLeaks after leaked cables exposed further evidence of Tunisian corruption. What then spontaneously emerged quickly reached a critical mass and led to the unmasking of the Tunisian despot.
So what really made the Tunisia revolution possible? Some entertain the idea that this was the first WikiLeaks or Twitter revolution, while others disagree, saying that it was simply the Tunisian people being pushed to the brink and not willing to take it anymore. Yet, a larger question looms of what this may portend for the future.
The purported catalyst of these riots was the self-immolation of a fruit seller who killed himself after facing the harsh reality of the unemployment and desperation. In an interview on DemocracyNow! Fares Mabrouk, a Tunisian activist, spoke about how the quick solidarity with Tunisians that emerged did not relate to any political party or union. It was not organized from top down, but people rose up, unifying in support of human dignity.
How was such instant solidarity possible? Tunisia has one of the most educated population in the Arab world and the promise of jobs after one’s education was now being met with the disappointment of unemployment, hard-hitting inflation, and despair. There is no doubt that WikiLeaks US diplomatic cable leaks played a role in this people’s uprising. The WikiLeaks release confirmed and empowered something that until then had been more felt. One of the results of the documents release is a sense worldwide that as a general rule governments deceive their people. The average person’s Internet literacy played a critical role in providing relatively unmediated communication in a kind of post-print image-multimedia society. The connection that this afforded to the Tunisian diaspora and beyond also brought support and perspective from across borders and proved vital in building this revolt.
Looking back at the age of enlightenment, it is clear how the spread of the printing press mobilized major social change, leading to the demise of the European monarchies and ushering in the age of the constitutional nation-state. The industrial revolution, along with efficient long distance sea travel, led to the age of exploration, colonization and the hegemony of Western civilization around the world. Now in modern Tunisia, the image of desperation in the suicide of Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi circulated through the Internet, at first without the traditional media taking part. This quickly set the fire for revolution. Old forms of communication such as print and broadcast media take time and depend on large centralized bureaucracies, access to which has been held hostage by wealth discrepancy and corporate monopolies. On the other hand, the Internet enables a different kind of communication; images, video and short messages like Twitter by which people directly communicate in channels of like-mindedness rather than one that depends on central control, national boundary, or class access. It is fast and inexpensive. The computer literacy of the Tunisian people made it more possible to mobilize, connecting emphatically at an immediate person-to-person level. When I am confronted with faraway events by way of the evening news, it is divorced from my experience, impersonal. Yet, it is my personal connection with someone that could not even reveal his given name for fear of reprisal made this revolution very real to me.
This experience emphasized the significance of the battle surrounding net-neutrality. While many that wish to maintain power over the masses use technology as a shield to oppress the populace and disconnect them from the true nature of their world, a ground swell of citizens-led movements use it as a tool to liberate, transform, and empower the people.
The rapid and unexpected expression of people power in recent weeks was seen all over the world. Now the iconic self-immolation has become a trend and despots around the world are getting nervous. For a few days after the Tunisian government fell, news reports come out of other men setting themselves alight out of desperation. Catching oneself on fire can be seen as a metaphor of the world crying out against a self-destructive, extractive economy that runs on oil and is fast careening out of control. Food riots are spreading. Farmers are killing themselves. It is as if the world is responding to the current unsustainable global economic model and wants to show how any society that puts heartless profits before human dignity will eventually fail.
Michel Chossudovsky in his article Tunisia and the IMF’s Diktats: How Macro-Economic Policy Triggers Worldwide Poverty and Unemployment put the unfolding turmoil in Tunisia into a global context. He argued that the dictator general Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was actually a puppet, serving Western free market interests. He wrote:
The food price hikes were not “dictated” by the Ben Ali government. Wall Street and the IMF imposed them….. The media in chorus have presented the crisis in Tunisia as an issue of domestic politics, without a historical insight. The presumption is that with the removal of “the dictator” and the instatement of a duly elected government, the social crisis will eventually be resolved.
The main actors nowadays are behind the curtain, only pulling the strings of the shifting puppets to misdirect the energy of the masses and divert them from real change. When celebrating the deposing of a dictator or corrupt government officials, one can still miss the actual roots of the problems. People’s uprisings are often co-opted in this way. The latest events in Tunisia and its continuing unrest is just one example.
Until the world wakes up to the real players that dehumanize and take away citizens’ power, positive transformation of global society will not be possible. WikiLeaks, in its inherently transnational nature, has no allegiance to any particular country and their revelations have helped change governments in a number of countries. Just as the Tunisian revolt has global significance, the WikiLeaks awakening is also global with many people rapidly reaching the point of being fed up. It is no longer possible for governments to dismiss revelations of corruption by ridiculing the information or manipulating public perception. For example, the Tunisian government’s reaction in shutting down WikiLeaks revealed its weakness, just as with the US government condemning WikiLeaks while saying that Iran should be more transparent. These actions reveal the duplicitous and hypocritical nature of systems purporting to support democracy and human rights while acting more and more like a global police state. The offshore banking leak that was recently handed to WikiLeaks may expose some of the billionaires who are actually behind the worldwide economic swindle that is pushing ordinary people to the brink. To the question of whether Tunisia is the first WikiLeaks Revolution, it could be said that the only WikiLeaks revolution would be a global one. Perhaps Tunisia is a flash of light that is showing all the world what might be possible. This is the tip of the iceberg of Anonymous, WikiLeaks and the new global solidarity movements.
It is becoming ever clearer that common people have common interests and connection beyond outdated nation-states mediated by corporate interests. What is truly revealed by the Tunisian uprising is the emerging transnational solidarity movement. It was almost on Martin Luther King’s birthday that president Ben Ali was driven from Tunisia. It seems King was prescient in the words that he spoke nearly 50 years ago:
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” – Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. A Time to Break Silence
Those who felt the revolution of brothers and sisters across borders are hearing in their hearts the beginning rumbling of an avalanche. The world is shrinking. With the help of social media, the new world that may come into being is really up to the imagination of the people. This rash of suicides may be the first warning of a global system of economic injustice lighting the match of its own self-destruction. Tarek Bouazizi of Tunisia killed himself in a fit of desperation. Whether the spreading fire of self-immolation is to become a transformative force depends on each person igniting the collective will for a better world.