On Friday, the President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled his homeland as it was engulfed by an uprising, sparked by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate who had taken to selling fruit in Sidi Bouzid. When authorities confiscated his wares for not having a license, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building. Protests followed, as thousands took to the street in a movement fueled by rage over corruption among the elite.
Anger in Tunisia has been building up for years, with Laila Al Trabelsi, former first Lady of Tunisia and infamous as “The Queen of Carthage,” becoming a lighting rod for much of the dissent. As Larbi Sadiki puts it “The First Lady is almost the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos incarnate. But instead of shoes, Madame Leila collects villas, real estate and bank accounts.” Laila and the Trabelsi extended family are often referred to as “The Family” or “The Mafia” in Tunisia, and “No to the Trabelsis who looted the budget,” has been a popular slogan in the protests. The irony is that the references to Laila al Trabelsi have been the only mention of Tunisian women in the events leading up to the ousting of the regime. Unlike in Lebanon or in Iran, where Neda Agha-Soltan became a symbolic figure of resistance, there was little mention of the women who took part in the protests in Tunisia, or of the victims of the security forces response, such as the woman who was shot and killed in Nabeul.
What explains this disparity? This was very much a media event, and perhaps this in itself was part of the reason. In the Arab world, and to a lesser extent in French media, there has been a month of in-depth coverage of a developing story, but in English-language media, the real coverage began only as Ben Ali began making concessions. Consequently, there was no narrative to frame events, so a disproportionate amount of the analysis has focused on the new media’s role in the uprising, from Wikileaks to Twitter.
Yes, social networks had a huge role to play, as did bloggers and sites such as Nawwat. However, to suggest that social media “caused” the revolution, is ridiculous to say the least, and to call this the first Wikileaks revolution is to suggest the Tunisians were not informed of what was going on in their own country and needed to be told that the Trabelsi clan was corrupt. It also ignores the role of pan-Arab satellite TV, which was at least as important as the internet, as was recognized when activists acknowledged Al Jazeera for its part in presenting the story as a people’s struggle, rather than dismissing it as “unrest” over unemployment.
In focusing on the new media and its part in the uprising, the English-language media has diverted attention away from the people in the street, other than as an undifferentiated mass of angry Arab men. With so many deaths, and the revolt starting in more conservative regions, perhaps there were initially few women on the street. The lack of attention to the role of women may partly be because Tunisia’s revolution focused on issues, with little attention paid to the importance of circulating images of “liberated” women to get the West on its side. [Read more...]