Was Facebook Responsible for the Arab Spring After All?

BY JOHN POLLOCK
Via Technology Review
How Egyptian and Tunisian youth hacked the Arab Spring. 
 

Outcry: Citizens demonstrate in Tunis, Tunisia, on January 20, 2011. Similar protests had already led President Ben Ali to flee the country; now the protesters were angry that members of his party remained in the transitional government.

Editor’s note: Foetus and Waterman asked to preserve their anonymity as a condition for speaking toTechnology Review. Our rule is that sources should remain anonymous if their safety or the safety of their families demands it. In such cases, we ask the writer of a story to tell its editor the sources’ identities. Here, unusually, although the writer spent many days with Foetus and spoke to Waterman over Skype, he never learned their real names. But we interviewed people who know the two revolutionaries. We are confident they are persistent personalities, not noms de guerre assumed by different people at different times, and that they did what they say they did.

The street revolutions that overthrew the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia in January and February had no Lenin or Trotsky; but two secretive Tunisians known as “Foetus” and “Waterman,” and their organization, Takriz, performed a remarkable and largely unknown role. Many groups helped remove Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power—students, unionists, lawyers, teachers, human rights activists, and online dissidents—and Takriz has links with all of these. But its main audience is alienated street youth: the lifeblood, often spilled, of the rebellion in North Africa. That youth rebellion has since spread far beyond Tunisia and Egypt to enflame the entire region. The Arab Spring or Arab Awakening will smolder for years to come. And the combination of online and offline strategies and tactics that Takriz and others helped develop will be scrutinized for decades.

Takriz began as a tiny self-described “cyber think tank” in 1998. Although it has grown into a loose network of several thousand, the Takrizards, or Taks, rarely coöperate with journalists and carefully guard their anonymity. “Takriz itself is an elusive word. It’s a street-slang profanity that expresses a feeling of frustrated anger: “breaking my balls” or “bollocks to that.” But what Le Monde called the group’s “irreducible insolence” belies a professional focus. ­Foetus, a technology consultant with an MBA and half a dozen languages, is a slight figure with a booming voice. He plays off his childhood friend Waterman, a big but more retiring man with a gift for writing. Takriz quickly got under the skin of the regime and has stayed there, even after the revolution. Hunted and exiled for years, many core Taks can still enter their country only with extreme caution, often undercover.

For Takriz, Ben Ali’s removal has changed little: the group believes that Tunisia’s interim government is cut from the same corrupted cloth as its predecessor. The situation is similar elsewhere in the region. Activists in Egypt are wary of the repressive Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that replaced Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, founding members of Morocco’s February 20 movement, who seek constitutional reform rather than revolution, perceive changes recently proposed by King Mohammed as mere political theater. The elderly regimes of the Middle East and North Africa are unwilling to leave the stage, yet unable to satisfy the political and economic demands of a demographic youth bulge: around two thirds of the region’s population is under 30, and youth unemployment stands at 24 percent. Inevitably, the rapidly changing landscape of media technology, from satellite TV and cell phones to YouTube and Facebook, is adding a new dynamic to the calculus of power between the generations.

Going Underground
Takriz started with modest aims, including freedom of speech and affordable Internet access. Waterman recalls that the Internet was the only viable option for organizers in 1998, because other media were controlled by Ben Ali. Foetus, Takriz’s chief technology officer, a skilled hacker who started hacking because he couldn’t afford Tunisia’s then-exorbitant phone and Internet costs, saw another advantage online: safety. Takriz meetings “in real life” meant “spies and police and all these Stasi,” he says, using the term for East Germany’s secret police. “Online we could be anonymous.”

Anonymous, perhaps, but they soon caught the regime’s attention. The government blocked Takriz’s website within Tunisia in August 2000, around the same time it blocked several others, including those of Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. Other Tunisian sites sprang up to take its place. A core Tak called SuX launched the first Arab-African social network, SuXydelik. Zouhair Yahyaoui, an older Takrizard then in his 30s, known online as “Ettounsi” (“The Tunisian”), started TuneZine, a humorous political webzine and forum that inspired many, not least with jokes such as this:

TuneZine is launching a competition for jokes, reserved for young people, about Ben Ali and his party.

First prize: 13 years in prison.

Second prize: 20 years in prison.

Third prize: 26 years in prison.

TuneZine made Ettounsi famous in Tunisia; it also led to his arrest and torture. He was sent to one of the worst prisons in the country, according to his brother Chokri, with 120 people in one room—”just one bathroom and hardly any water.” His sister Layla recalls that when he became sick and asked to see a doctor, “they beat him.” He went on several hunger strikes. Read story at Technology Review


John Pollock is a journalist who writes mostly about Africa. His article “Green Revolutionary,” a profile of Norman Borlaug, appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Technology Review.

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