Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tunisia Uprising Vs Iran Election Aftermath. Similarities and Differences

I have visited Tunisia on a yearly basis for about ten years for business. The capital city of Tunis houses the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) headquarters. That’s the equivalent of Europe’s EBU and Asia’s ABU. In the many visits to the country rightfully nicknamed “Tunisia the Green” for its cleanliness and pleasant weather and landscape, never did it occur to me that the economic situation would get so desperate that a youth of that country would resort to setting himself on fire to express his dismay .

Let me repeat to you that I never thought this day would come. Certainly not in Tunisia.

To be quite honest, out of the Middle East region, I thought such a rebellious act would come from Egypt where the opposition to President Mubarak’s regime is so fierce and vocal, that public demonstrations of anger and dismay have become a routine.

Tunisia is different. I have many contacts in the north African country, most of them in the media. Most of them cheerleaders for the President and his policies. Did I mention that there is no free independent press in Tunisia? Very much like most of the Middle East region, Tunisia lives under an authoritarian one-party rule that functions in the world under the guise of a democracy. And, yes, Tunisia is an otherwise peaceful country, friends with the United States, the European Union and the rest of the world. It’s a country that minds its own business and is at war with no one. Its President never said he wants to wipe any country off the map and never called world leaders who don’t agree with him any names. Tunisia of course is not pursuing any nuclear technology either that we know of. For the most part, Tunisia is a magnet for tourists as it boasts beautiful Mediterranean resorts, port cities, wonderful food and some of the most pleasant people you’ll ever meet.

President Zein El Abedine Ben Ali has been at the helm of the country for twenty three years and there is no sign of him going anywhere. Another one of those President for Life type of things you hear about a lot in that part of the world. In Tunisia, there is no room for dissent, it’s a police state tightly controlled from all ends. When a youth decided to torch himself, he didn’t link his act to an election or an important state visit or a referendum, he simply has had enough. He couldn’t bear the economic situation anymore and he did what most of us were shocked by, he EXPRESSED HIMSELF, pretty harshly I must add, in a country where self-expression against the government usually leads you to jail or exile.

That desperate act by one young man started a movement within Tunisia where people took to the streets to say, “Enough is enough.” From Sidi Boud Zid, the demonstrations spread to other cities and reached the capital. People’s defiance was so loud and unusual, it prompted a televised message from the President in which he promised to “punish” the “rioters.”

Punishment is a word many Arabs know a thing or two about. Those active on line have seen what happened to bloggers in Saudi Arabia and demonstrators in Egypt and dissidents in Iran, Bahrain and Lebanon. President Ben Ali didn’t address the economic problems his citizens are suffering from, he didn’t acknowledge that those he called “rioters” are merely Tunisian citizens who had been mute for so long and simply decided to speak up. This whole dire economic situation is the government’s responsibility. We didn’t see someone set a government building on fire. instead someone torched his own body in protest; yet the best thing President Ben Ali could offer was a threat of yet more punishment as if the situation people were in didn’t afford them enough punishment.

The demonstrations have now crossed the Tunisian borders. Thanks to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and thanks to lessons learned during the aftermath of Iran’s Presidential election, Tunisians and other Arabs are mobilizing to throw their support behind a movement without a clear idea about who will carry on with this “revolt” as many have started calling it by now.

This is no Iran Election situation though and it would require more work to get the attention of the western world and its mainstream media to cover. Here is why:
  • In 2009, international media organizations were already in large numbers in Tehran to cover the much-anticipated election
  • The Iranian opposition had been very active and vocal for almost a year before the election. They garnered support both on the ground and through social media sites for a long time before they took to the streets
  • When the Ahmadinejad regime announced its victory in the election, the opposition and its supporters worldwide were ready to cry foul in unison. They were loudest on Twitter and Facebook, before videos started pouring in via YouTube.
  • The Iranian diaspora is comprised mainly of anti-Islamic Republic of Iran members who were able to influence many to jump on the bandwagon of what became known as the #IranElection and force the media through #Fail campaigns to pay attention and cover what was going on inside Iran
  • The Ahmadinejad crackdown on international media in Tehran gave big media the perfect excuse to look for alternative sources of information to share with their audiences
  • Most importantly, what no one could miss were the activity of the opposition inside Iran and the violence that ordinary Iranians braved to get their message out. The pictures and video they took with their own cell phones and uploaded on the Internet for all of us to see and share. People died, others were arrested and/or beaten. Most of this violence was documented and shared with the international community in a very organized way that allowed for vetting and checking before publishing and broadcasting
None of the above elements exist today for Tunisia’s uprising. Instead, the story has a few handicaps:
  • Prior to the Sidi Bou Zid tragic incident and what ensued, the Tunisian online community wasn’t organized or influential enough.
  • There are no independent professional reporters inside Tunisia that we know of to investigate, interview all sides, get accurate figures and report the news.
  • One can hope that major news outlets have applied for visas to send crews in to keep an eye on the situation and do the news gathering needed for a balanced reporting on this story. So far, not too many signs of that happening.
Despite the lack of online muscle, the hashtag #sidibouzid which has now become the symbol of Tunisia’s uprising is picking up steam on Twitter. Some tweets have even made it to Top Tweets. Tunisians have shot stills and video and uploaded them to Facebook. But, we also know that the President is set to “punish” the “rioters” and what that means we might never know. So, information from inside Tunisia is scarce and might get even scarcer.

So, yes, #sidibouzid does look like #IranElection in a way. The question is, will this story have enough steam to pick up supporters who can turn the steam into a Must-Report story for mainstream media on the last days of 2010? Judging by previous years, this is a time for one huge news story such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, the Benazir Bhutto assassination in 2007, and Israel’s Gaza incursion in 2008. Can Tunisia become the story of December 2010?

Whether it will become the media focus or not, the Tunisian spontaneous uprising has already served as a wake-up call to many in the Arab world. Lessons that leaders as well as ordinary citizens can and will learn from.


Keep the conversation going...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may add to this excellent analyse related to the events in Tunisia, few personal remarks : 1- Of course, the geopolitical situation of Iran is very different,
2- the wealth and the damn of oil and other natural resources in Iran have always made it a centre of attention and greed ;
3- December is more a time for a Tsunami to get the attention than Tunisia. This year, no Tsunami so far but a forgotten Tunis.

December 30, 2010 at 6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for covering Tunisia. The international media (besides Al-Jazeera) has been absent, and worse, superficial and missing the whole point of this uprising.
Now the imprisonment and tortures of journalists and activists has started and the government is going back to the standard ways

Thank you for the support.

December 31, 2010 at 5:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The above listed differences are valid but there are others issues that made Iran elections more important.
The Western media have already drawn its priorities to criticize the policies of Iran and any rebellious actions!!
I can remind you of Sakineh, the woman who was charged of illegal sex. All the western media and presidents of Europe and US criticized the punishment, but no one talked about Ali Sbat from Saudi Arabia, WHY??
coz they've already knew their red lines, and who to criticize and attack!!

AnD now Tunisia, as an observer of British media, I've never heard about it until the last few days! (though it was present in the new media since 2 weeks)
And everyone knows about Neda Sultan from Iran but I can barely know the name of the man who torched himself!!
I totally agree with the above but plz let me add these too :)

December 31, 2010 at 9:51 AM  
Blogger Cristian said...

I was there (and I wasn't in some western pricebreaking tourist resorts but all around the country, till down in the southern desertic no man's land) and I have to agree: the police state is very visible; and they do not care about being at least discreet - police is there to be visible. But: I'm just curious how powerfull the radical islamic groups could become if the authoritarian gouvernment would relax the way it's ruling some decays now...

January 2, 2011 at 12:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually a much more relevant comparison would be with the situation in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution, not to the 2009 election riots. The ingredients are nearly identical:
- a despotic western leaning ruler with a corrupt family and extravagant lifestyle.
- bad economic conditions
- a heterogeneous mix of opposition groups, united only by their hatred of the current leadership
- of these opposition groups, the only one with any true organization and ideology are the islamists with an exiled leader.

January 3, 2011 at 11:11 PM  
Blogger alchemist585 said...

The Obama administration has been utterly disappointing on many levels, not least of which ME policy. It is time for the US and the UK to side clearly with the people of Egypt and declare a complete, clean and unambiguous break with Mubarak and his tyrannical rule, and while they are at they should do the same with a couple of other tyrants in the neighborhood.
Siding with people instead of supporting dictators would be a winning long-term investment, but then it would also be out of character for the Western "Democracies".

January 30, 2011 at 6:29 PM  

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