The Italy Center Spring Social Justice Tunisia Tour offers students an up close and personal account of the Arab Spring.  The initial leg of the tour includes meetings with young leaders, Tunisian academics and U.S. Diplomats including Ambassador Gordon Grey.  In this feature story Italy Center Director Todd Waller captures the sentiments shared by Tunisians regarding the new found freedom of expression and the cyber activism.

Activism or Clicktavism ?

The Tunisian revolution began in December of 2010 when graduate student Mouhamed Bouazizi,  a 26-year old Tunisian street vendor set himself afire in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation that was inflicted on him by a municipal official. This act became the catalyst for mass demonstrations throughout Tunisia unleashing decades of pent up anger from citizens who had been living in a virtual police state.  Bouazizi’s cousin was the first to capture the image on his phone which was quickly broadcasted to the world via Facebook, twitter and other forms of social media. Mouhamed Bouazizi’s desperate act combined with the tools of instant messaging and the on-line community (thanks to hackers) launched weeks of street protests in which Tunisians peacefully fought against Dictator Ben Ali’s oppressive regime. The United Nations later reported that 300 protestors’ lives were lost, yet, young Tunisians many of whom refer to the movement as the “Facebook Revolution,” are proud of the fact that their bravery became the catalyst for movements across the Arab world.

It is without a doubt that social media played an instrumental role in bringing Tunisians into the streets which led to the fall of the Ben Ali regime.   Since January 14, 2011, the day the former Dictator fled to Saudi Arabia, many have created their own blogs and are claiming to be activists. To the general public what today’s internet does not reveal is who the true activists are and who has jumped on the clicktivists’ band wagon.  The youth on the streets of Tunis understand that there is a clear division between the clicktavists and the activists’ bloggers, the latter who put their lives on the line risking imprisonment or worse in the days leading ups to the fall of the Dictator. Afef Abrougui (University of Tunis Linguistics Major), considered by her peers to be a serious activist and blogger writing for the Global Voices campaign sat down with our Spring Hill Italy Center students to discuss the role of social media pre and post revolution.  Afef reminded the students that “yes, it is true, social media was a tool in the revolution, but we cannot forget that people died in the manifestations, people gave their lives.”  Italy Center student Colleen Curry (University of San Francisco English Major) notes “In the United States many in my generation are labeled as ‘slacktivists’ because it is easy to comment on whatever pops up on Facebook as opposed to real life activism which means turning of your laptop and becoming committed to a human rights cause.”

Featured in the photo are young activists representing three continents, left to right Martina Fabbri (University of Bologna) who works with the Rom community in Bologna, Afef Abrougui (University of Tunis) a blogger writing for Global Voices, and Colleen Curry (University of San Francisco) who worked with immigrants while studying at the Spring Hill Italy Center.

A US Embassy representative made it clear that the Tunisian youth took the greatest risks in the early days of the revolution. The youth were taken seriously during the protests but in the post revolution Tunisia it is the younger generation who appear to be left on the sidelines. Perhaps this addresses why more and more young people are trying to make their political perspectives heard via the internet and not in main stream leadership positions in local Tunisian politics.

A rather sobering theme throughout the Spring Hill Social Justice Tour to Tunisia is the fact that young leaders are not being elevated into positions of influence in local and national affairs.   A sense of a post revolution hangover is in the air as young Tunisians who were on the front lines of the cyber activism and the street protest risking and losing lives are now feeling left behind. Unlike the European nations to the north of Tunisia (45 miles from Sicily) who have had a few centuries to struggle with democracy and nearly two decades of internet freedom, both of these realities are new to Tunisia.  University of Tunis Law Professor Hamada Redissi reminded our group that in 2003 less than 1% of Tunisians were connected to the web; today those figures are approaching 40%. Yet, as a whole only 3.4% of the entire Middle East population is connected. (1)

Young Tunisians are proud of their role in hacking government systems and keeping international news websites alive in the days and weeks that led to end of Ben Ali’s 23 years of iron-fisted rule.  In efforts to recognize the activism of the young cyber revolutionaries, the Tunisian transitional government recently declared March 13 as the National Day of Internet Freedom.   The event simultaneously honors the memory of the Tunisian cyber-activist Zouhair Yahyaoui. Yahyaoui – one of Tunisia’s first vocal online political dissidents who fought against Ben Ali’s era and died in prison on March 13, 2005.

Internet Freedom Day is a nice gesture of recognition from the interim government, but many of today’s Tunisia youth want to be tomorrow leaders. A sentiment expressed by nearly all of the lecturers who presented to our group is that many of the Tunisian youth who were willing to give their lives for freedom are now being ignored.  A failure to bring young talent into leadership roles could have long term negative implications for democracy building.  For example, in some rural villages, it appears that conservative forms of Islam may be taking root.  As in all parts of the globe unemployed youth with no access to the political process are susceptible to forms of extreme religious expression.

As was evident from all who met with Italy Center students during the annual April tour, ousting a dictator was relatively easy; building a democratic nation is the messy work.

Sources
1.    Internet World Sources  found on line at www.internetworldstats.com/stats5.htm