On January 14, 2011 at 6 PM, the Tunisian national television network announced the abrupt departure of President Ben Ali. Thousands of young men and women took to the streets of Tunis. Defying the police, defying the deposed dictator, they declared the end of a regime. Tunisia, birthplace of Hannibal, St. Augustine and Ibn Khaldun, had entered into a new era.
But why did it change? How could an apparently solid and stable system give way so dramatically? Why didn’t anyone see it coming? What is Tunisia’s reality now? And what about its future?
Recent events, as almost everyone knows, were triggered in the region of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. In this neglected and forgotten part of Tunisia the young Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. An act of desperation after his source of income, a wheelbarrow for transporting vegetables, was confiscated. This act dissolved the troubled stasis of Tunisian society, swept Ben Ali out of power and launched the Jasmine Revolution.
Unplanned, emergent, organic to Tunisian society, this revolution is not ruled by mechanical time. It is spontaneous. Invented rather than discovered, to use Gaston Berger’s vibrant Nietzschean formula. At its nucleus is complexity, composed not just of reality’s infinitude or the disruptive nature of chaos but also the continuous surprise of novelty.
Might this be a revolutionary revolution? Anticipating its own future without knowing the elements that compose it? Of course one conventional answer is simply that the forces of order and planning and authority have been taken off-guard. At the moment the Jasmine Revolution is just gliding in that magic zone of free flight. Soon enough spontaneity will give way to pre-meditation.
Or could this be a wikilution? Are the tools of collaborative, real-time engagement with novelty sufficient to add a new form of coordination and creative collective consciousness? It is certainly too early to tell. Other revolutions have glimpsed a step change in the capacity to be free only to be smothered by attempts to master complexity.
Still each moment in history is unique. The tools at the disposal of today’s revolutionaries could enable aspirations to take a new turn. Indeed the Tunisian case is already distinguished by the use and power of 21st century social networking technology. These tools amplify and augment, but do they really open up another path?
So far the answer appears to be yes. Specifically Facebook has played a direct and catalytic enabling role, breaking the constraints imposed by an authoritarian and corrupt regime. Certainly, the underlying conditions were ripe. A combination of three attributes that make Tunisian society highly distinctive, very different from other Arab countries, set the stage:
- literacy rates over 80%;
- emancipation of women, including contraception (see annex);
- a demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rate, in part due to high literacy and women’s rights.
All three of these aspects of current Tunisian society, very different from Egypt – even if Tunisia’s efforts at liberation are being emulated there, reflect policies that were introduced at the time of Tunisian independence in 1956. Indeed it was the intent of these policies to encourage the emergence of Tunisian democracy.
Only remnants of the “ancien regime” – patriarchal, authoritarian and prone to massive corruption – usurped power. The Ben Ali regime stifled change for 23 years. Up until the moment when Facebook and the power of social networking finally broke the uneasy but seemingly stable mixture of police state, modernism and feminism.
In 2010 Facebook counted over 2 million members in a population of 10.4 million people. Over 80% of the 14 to 34 year old cohort has Facebook accounts. Social life, actions and reactions to current events, coordination and inspiration became massively connected. Facebook became the largest political force in Tunisia. A fact so threatening to the regime that it set up a censorship system “Ammar” to steal passwords and user accounts, block videos and user networks, and mobilizing 2,000 employees of the Tunisian Internet Agency.
Only the internet is hard to control. A young Facebooker from the town of Kasserine, in the west of Tunisia, circumvented state surveillance by establishing an Anonymous user system. This same “hacker” was the first to post a video with horrific images of heavily armed snipers killing young Tunisians and of the wounded recovering in the hospital. Singlehandedly this person plugged the world in and the regime could not escape.
The net was also critical in the rapid and effective establishment of so-called “vigilance committees” to sustain the revolution and ensure that Ben Ali’s allies could not sneak back to power. Facebook provided an ideal medium for mobilizing and nourishing the dissent that unleashed this revolution. Young people in the street by day and in front of their screens by night ended a dictatorship.
Still, unleashing a revolution is one thing, enabling the full flowering of a new social order is another. Establishing a really different way of (re)creating daily life, a new system that from the perspective of the past may seem permanently chaotic, is a big leap. Perhaps the advantage this time around is that the revolution was not premeditated, not steeped in an explicit ideology, idealized program or utopian goal. And the tool for its realization remains spontaneous, capable in wiki style of continuously recreating the collective.
Today’s tools of social networking facilitate both the search for the enabling conditions of collective action and a fluidity of outcomes. This is a state of permanent experimentation. The future is not to be colonized but improvised. Maybe, thinking of Marshall Mcluhan’s famous phrase, this time around the revolution’s medium is the message – a revolution that like its enabler embraces complexity, novelty, creativity and imagination. That would be a wikilution.
Annex: Women In Tunisia
The civic and social achievements of women in Tunisia can be appreciated by considering the Tunisian Code of Personal Status. This is the set of laws that govern the status of women in Tunisia. This Code confirms both the historic and symbolic aspirations of women, long advocated by several generations of Tunisian and Arab reformers. The pioneering champion of these reforms was none other than the Tunisian author Taher Haddad who wrote “our Muslim women in law and society” in 1930. The views of Tahar Haddad were understood and acted upon by President Habib Bourguiba at the dawn of Tunisian independence. He modernized the position of women in Tunisian society.
The Code was promulgated on the 13th of August 1956, a day that has since become symbolic for Tunisian society and is now included in the calendar of official holidays. Through this law, subsequent amendments, and other legal texts, the Code of Personal Status of Women established Tunisian women as full citizens before the law. Tunisian women have been eligible to vote since 1957. On the grounds of equality and partnership the Code abolished polygamy, instituted judicial divorce, prohibited “repudiation”, set the minimum age of marriage to more than 17 years, and instituted various provisions guaranteeing women’s rights in matters of inheritance. In terms of economic and social rights, the Code establishes non-discrimination at work.
One of the most important achievements of Tunisian women, one which puts Tunisian society in the forefront of all Arab countries and even the West, is the legal provisions concerning family planning and birth control. Indeed, family planning is considered a fundamental right, a right to individual health and a means of preserving the mother’s health, family stability, and child rearing. Abortion was authorized in July 1965. Prior to that, the law of January 9, 1961 authorized the import and sale of contraceptives.