Beyond "Orientalism", a Revolution with many faces

Western fantasies about the "Twitter Revolution"

Social Media on the Ground: An eyewitness account

Photo courtesy of lululemon athletica

Ahmad Sukkar* is a 25 year old man, French born of Tunisian descent. After studying Economics and International Relations in France, he went on to work for a major multinational company in Tunis, and witnessed what was going on in the country on January 14th and onward.

Ahmad Sukkar  was working in Paris from January 10th to 13th. The days before he left, there was absolutely nothing going on in Tunis. Unrest started on the evening of the 10th, beginning in the ghettoized areas and spreading to the rest of the city on the 11th. The reports he got from friends told him of gunshots in the streets, helicopters flying low over the city, a reeking smell of burned bins, and the looting of stores from January 15th onwards. 

The demonstrations were mostly happening at the Bardo (in front of the Parliament), in the Kasbah (where most ministeries are) and on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where there the Ministry of the Interior was located, symbol and head of the Police.

On Jan 14th, people starting demonstrating at 10 am; they were of all ages (7 to 80 years old) and all social backgrounds, which was stunning to witness. This is when the slogan "dégage" began to catch on, with a swift movement of the arm over the head, from right to left. Videos of clashes with the police were posted on the Internet.

According to Sukkar, PHONES were the most important communication tools. Everybody was constantly calling everybody to know what was going on. Sukkar’s peers gave him the most important information about the protest, even though in sheer quantity of information, Facebook and blogs were central. Sukkar described the organizers of these protests as super efficient and organized (“westernized”) guys. For example, every hour, Sukkar called two people he knew were well informed. At night, he checked Facebook for more general information found on the profiles of those friends whom he knew were very active (like this one)

In Tunisia, like in Western Europe, most people have smartphones, or at least phones that can film and take pictures. It's important to understand that though the center of the country (Sidi Bouzid...) may be North African, the coast and major cities (Sfax, Tunis) are basically European when it comes to technology and way of life, says Sukkar. Thus, people have the exact same use of Youtube and Facebook as in France or Italy, and when something happens before their eyes, they film it and post it.

After Ben Ali left, the media finally started doing its job, says Sukkar. At that point, everyone was hooked on the news 24/7. Demonstrations were found on Facebook events, and confirmed by phone with friends. According to Sukkar, Facebook was mostly useful before January 14th, when the media was not doing its job in covering the riots in the south and center of the country. During this time, active users helped spread public anger through notes and videos about Sidi Bouzid, hence the many unverified rumors which circulated. But this was very risky since Ben Ali's police were very active online.

*The name of our interviewee has been changed for the individual’s personal safety.