Revolution in fast forward

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jan 29 2011, 04:26am hrs
Roger Cohen

This is where an Arab revolution began, in a hardscrabble stretch of nowhere. If the modern world is divided into dynamic hubs and a static periphery, Sidi Bouzid epitomises the latter. The town never even appeared on the national weather forecast.

The spark was an altercation on December 17, 2010. It involved a young fruit-and-vegetable peddler named Mohamed Bouazizi and a policewoman much older than him called Faida Hamdy. What exactly transpired between themwho slapped or spat at whom, which insults flewhas already entered the realm of revolutionary myth.

Soon afterthis at least is undisputedBouazizi set himself on fire in front of the modest governors building where protesters now gather around portraits of the martyr. Bouazizi would live another 18 days. By then, an Arab dictatorship with a 53-year pedigree was shuddering. Within another 10 days, it had fallen in perhaps the worlds first revolution without a leader. Or rather, its leader was far away: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Its vehicle was the youth of Tunisia, able to use Facebook for instant communication and so cyber-inspire their parents.

Anders Colding-Jorgensen, a Danish psychologist, conducted an experiment in 2009 in which he implied that Copenhagens Stork Fountain was about to be demolished and started a Facebook group to save it. The threat was fictitious but the group soon had two new members joining every minute.

The Tunisian revolution was that experiment on steroids. Castro spent years preparing revolution in the Cuban interior, the Sierra Maestra; Facebook propelled insurrection from the interior to the Tunisian capital in 28 days. How could a spat over pears in Nowhereville turn into a national uprising No Tunisian newspaper or TV network covered it. The West was busy with Christmas. Tunisia was the Arab worlds Luxembourg: Nothing ever happened. Some poor kids self-immolation could never break a wall of silence. Or so it seemed.

That day, December 17, a dozen members of Bouazizis enraged family gathered outside the governors building. They shook the gates and demanded that the governor see them. Our family can accept anything but not humiliation, Samia Bouazizi, the dead mans sister, told me, sitting under a bare light bulb in a small house near a trough where sheep were feeding.

Humiliation is an important word in this story. It was the hogra, or contempt, of the dictators kleptocracy that would cyber-galvanise an Arab people.

The protests soon swelled. Participants uploaded cellphone images onto Facebook pages. My daughter, Ons, whos 16, started showing me what was going on, said Hichem Saad, a Tunis-based entrepreneur.

Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV network, was alerted through Facebook. Along the way, Bouazizi, who did not even have a high-school diploma, cyber-morphed into a frustrated university graduate: that resonated in a nation where many graduates are jobless. This myth went round the world. Information moving this fast is inspired, rather than bound, by facts.

When Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the now ousted dictator, addressed the nation, as he would three times, Facebook-ferried fury was the response. Ben Ali might have 1.5 million members in his puppet party; he soon faced two million Facebook users. By now Faida Hamdy, the policewoman, had slapped Bouazizi across the face. Perhaps she did. Her cousin told me he slapped her: more hurtling facts too good to check.

Hisham Ben Khamsa, who organises an American movie festival in Tunis, watched with his kids as Ben Ali made his last speech on January 13. Now, the strongmans confrontational fury had gone. Like the shah of Iran in 1978too latehe had understood. He felt the peoples pain. Bread prices would come down. He hadnt understood a thing, Ben Khamsa told me. This was about dignity, not bread. His political autism was terminal. Everyone was live-commenting the speech on Facebook.

The next night, Ben Ali fled after 23 years in power, short of his predecessors 30 years. Its said the average age of a Tunisian is one dictator and a half. That nightmare is over. Now the new youth minister, a 33-year-old former dissident blogger, tweets from Cabinet meetings. Everyone is talking where everyone was silent. Every Arab nation is waiting for its Bouazizi, his sister told me.

Some observations: First, the old nostrum goes that its either dictators or Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab world because theyre the only organised forces. No, online communities can organise and bite.

Second, those communities have no formal ideology but their struggle is to transform humiliation into self-esteem.

Third, cyber-uprisings can go either way: Iran hovered on a razors edge in 2009, Tunisias regime fell in 2011. In both societies the gulf between the authorities and young wired societies was huge. The difference is probably the degree of sustained brutality a dictatorship can muster.

Fourth, Internet freedom is no panacea. Authoritarian regimes can use it to identify dissidents; they can try to suppress Facebook. But its empowering to the repressed, humiliated and distantand so a threat to the decayed Arab status quo.

Tunisia was a Facebook revolution. But I prefer a phrase I heard in Tunis: The Dignity Revolution.