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Watching a Digital "Jasmine Revolution" Unfold

Using Facebook and Twitter to track trouble on the streets of Tunisia.
June 21, 2011

There’s an irony in going to Tunisia to research a Technology Review story, on the role of social media in the Arab Spring, and suddenly relying on Facebook and Twitter to guess the risk-level of leaving your hotel.

Google News had a few stories that trouble had flared the day before, May 5th. A “secretly filmed” video showed the former Interior Minister Farhat Rajh warning of a possible coup by remnants of the former political elite if Islamists won the upcoming election. Facebook exploded, people mobilized - and on Friday, as I flew, over a dozen journalists, as well as many protestors, were beaten on the street right outside the hotel I had inadvertently booked.

Landing late, the initial impression is sleek, modern, welcoming. Tunis-Carthage International Airport has lots of marble, travelators by Siemens, illuminated ads for Samsung smartphones, efficient baggage pickup. The air is balmy, the palm-lined highway to the city typical of a medium size American city: clean, well-lit, crowded with modern buildings topped with neon signs speaking a lingua franca of instantly recognizable brands alongside the cursive flow of Arabic script. The Carlton Hotel is on the main drag - Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named for the modernizing, Western-facing, socially-reforming first Tunisian president, ousted in a bloodless 1987 coup d’état by the recently fled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (the so-called “Jasmine revolution” - although one activist resents this Western-generated moniker, preferring something like the Cactus or Rose Revolution to add a more realistic touch of spikes or thorns).

Lined with trees, Tunisian flags and a mix of modern buildings or well-preserved art deco facades, it’s immaculately kept. Psychologically, it’s the political centre of town: here is the Ministry of the Interior, in charge of at least two police forces. (The third is somewhat shadowy, and likely to include the snipers which the government denies knowledge of but activists claim to have filmed. The avenue also hosts the Embassy of France - the former colonial power - high-rise hotels and a rather beautiful theatre. Tunisia has form hiding the ambivalence of a massive security state apparatus that would do a Soviet satrapy proud behind ads for cheap winter sun for nearby Europeans.

Step off into a side street, and the other city looms: much dirtier, clearly poorer - and tense. Almost everything is shuttered. The gloomy mood in the only place to eat is infectious. The next day, under a bright sky, the Tunisian chapter of the Arabic story is much brighter: traditional women dressed as they have for centuries, if not millennia, and old men who still like to sport a fez, a remnant of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile fashionable young women who would grace any city - Bourguiba promoted women’s rights and emancipation - chatter on cellphones under diving swallows.

Searching for a less stuffy hotel, I turn to the net, which many think fuelled these recent revolutions. I pick one from TripAdvisor, but the cab driver apologizes that this is as near as he can get: the street, near some Ministries, is guarded by police, and then a tank - and then dozens of rolls of shiny new razor wire. After a stroll through the ancient medina, part of which is now a modern tourist trap, I sit in a run-down cafe for that ubiquitous Arab refreshment, mint tea. With 3G and the Twitter app Echofon, I scan nearby Tweets. One, tweeted minutes earlier, translates via schoolboy French into “tense atmosphere on h.b. [Avenue Habib Bourgiba].” To get there I thread past half a dozen police vans parked up in side streets, around the modern Hotel Africa now shuttered and protected - and groups of men and police gathered on the roads feeding into the Avenue. Something’s about to kick off so we watch, and wait.

Across the avenue outside the El Hana International hotel, the security presence escalates. Squads of police motorcyclists roam, men in balaclavas carry sticks and tear gas guns - and there are a lot of pretty obvious secret policemen. The street is now nearly empty of any vehicle that isn’t part of the security apparatus. Small groups mill around. A couple of fireworks get thrown. Suddenly tear gas is fired - and we run. Then we stop, regroup, turn back, creep forward, gather again, wait, watch. Take a photo or two. Make a cellphone call. More rounds of tear gas. I get the privilege of inhaling my first whiff of Arab Spring tear gas - and am stupidly surprised to find my eyes watering, my feet instinctively backing me away from the invisible chemical manufactured and sold by the USA.

On the tenth floor terrace of the El Hana, opposite the exquisite Theatre de la Ville de Tunis, there is a bird’s eye view of both the avenue and nearby areas. Tear gas is now being fired throughout central Tunis, with a fire visible near the train station. A few stones are being thrown and there are scattered skirmishes. The stream of Tweets - or Twitterfall - increases slightly, although with very few able to afford smartphones, people prefer to anxiously take and make calls and texts to check friends are okay. In the bar an important soccer match grips some: on the terrace, other Tunisians watch appalled and upset. Some say this is the beginning of the second revolution.

A crackle of live rounds. “They’re firing into the air,” someone notes helpfully. “How do you know?” I ask. “The sound.” Suddenly there’s a much sharper, crisper, flatter crack. “Oh my God! You hear that? That’s not being fired into the air. Oh my God.” It’s a gun being fired horizontally into… And here technology is no longer useful, no longer a live feed. We’ll have to wait for the word from this perpetual and dense conversational culture, from the cafe and the crowd: what the Anglosphere dubs the ‘Arab Street’ and the French call ‘the Arab phone’ but is perhaps best thought of now as ‘the Arab net’. What we are watching is what Samir Garbaya, a Tunisian computer scientist, dubs “the Arab streetbook: it is the virtual being manifested in the real, on the street.”

This is a complex, multi-layered story about content flowing via digital and other media - including intimate “microcasting” (conversations between trusted friends and family) - in a deeply oral culture. Content flowing in texts, games, social networks and via innovative broadcasting by Al Jazeera. All combining in complex ways with physical street presence to fuel insurrections and even revolutions. It has a hidden, secretive history that started long before the Sidi Bouzid self-immolation that led to Ben Ali’s ignominious scuttle to Saudi Arabia. It continues as we scuttle, also ignominiously - we’re not children, after all - to get inside for the 9pm-5am curfew imposed two days later in Greater Tunis. Where we watch - more or less in live-time via Twitter and Facebook - the reinstatement of state-sanctioned censorship on certain Facebook pages like this one for digital activists Takriz (the rich irony of a copyright notice on a piece of official censorship - think of its intellectual property value! - seems lost on the Agence Tunisienne d’Internet).

It is a history heading towards an uncertain future, where the 21st century and its digital revolution is clashing into cultural habits and power matrices embedded in an ancient landscape. Or perhaps it’s more like what African-born British technologist Alfie Dennen calls an “eschatone - the sound made when you catch up to the future travelling back at you.” Either way, it currently sounds less like the haunting call to prayer of the muezzin, and more like Tunisian rapper El Général.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot more mint tea to be consumed…

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