Monday, January 17, 2011

Tunisia’s Twitter/Jasmine Revolution

While political scientists are still trying to sort out what to call this past weekend’s events in Tunisia: uprising, revolt, coup, etc.; the media have made their call – it’s a revolution, and according to some, not just a revolution, but a Twitter Revolution.

Let’s take a step back and look at how things have quickly unfolded in the North African nation during the past week. After his security forces were unable to quell street protests, Tunisia’s authoritarian president President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali decided to high-tail it out of the country and into exile. Over the weekend an interim government led by the country’s Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, stepped forward and assumed control, though there are reports as of Monday morning that unrest is still widespread, Tunisian state security forces are still trying to gain control of the streets and militias loyal to President Ben Ali are still roaming the countryside. Sparking all of this unrest was the suicide of 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who set himself on fire in an act of protest after government officials confiscated the small vegetable stand he ran when he could not find any other work after graduating from college. Bouazizi died on January 4.

With the media in Tunisia tightly controlled by the state, Bouazizi’s story only got out via social media – Facebook, YouTube, etc., so thus whatever is currently happening in Tunisia has been dubbed the “Twitter Revolution”. If all of this sounds familiar, it is; previously popular uprisings in both Iran and Moldova have been called the Twitter Revolution. But in each case – getting past the fact that Iran’s uprising failed and Moldova’s brought change, just not all that much – the “revolutions” should have been more accurately been called the Social Media Revolution, and even then only if you expand the definition of social media to include cell phones and text messages. Twitter in each case has seemed to be a tool - one of many – that people have used to get the story of the uprising out. But to be called the X-revolution, X must be the cause of the revolution, not merely the poorly-worded name for a tool used within it – and by that measure what’s happening in Tunisia is best called the Unemployed and Angry Young People Revolt (not exactly a zippy title, I know).

Of course we won’t be calling it that since the other trend in revolutions in the 21st century is to give them some color or flower-related name; in Tunisia’s case we have the Jasmine Revolution. This trend got it’s start with Georgia’s Rose Revolution, and really picked up steam with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution – where supporters of Viktor Yushchenko, who had lost an obviously-rigged presidential election – at least wore Orange to help identify each other. We also had Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution and Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution (yes, a Cedar is a tree, but it does fit the theme here). Even though I’ve read several articles calling Tunisia’s the “Jasmine Revolution”, I still can’t find out why Jasmine has gotten attached to this one.

But frankly, mass political uprisings are serious things that shouldn’t be given cutesy nicknames. And given the track record of the color/flower revolutions, Tunisia might want to steer clear. After five years, Yiktor Yanukovich, the very man whose election-rigging attempts sparked the Orange Revolution, was voted back into power; in Georgia government has flirted with authoritarianism since the Rose Revolution; Kyrgyzstan had another revolution following the Tulip one and Lebanon is currently undergoing an extended political crisis. Hopefully whatever is currently going on in Tunisia, has a brighter future over the long term.
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