|Regions like Sidi Bouzid – where the uprisings began – were neglected by former Tunisian president Ben Ali, who tended to focus on developing the northern, tourist-rich regions of the country [Getty]|
Sidi Bouazid, Tunisia – The people of Sidi Bouzid overcame heavy censorship and police repression to ensure that their uprising did not go unnoticed in silence.
Protesters took to the streets with “a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other,” according to Rochdi Horchani – a relative of Mohamed Bouazizi – who helped break through the media blackout.
Since the same day of the self-immolation of the 26-year-old street vendor that triggered riots causing the Tunisian leadership to flee the country, family members and friends used social media to share the news of what was happening in Sidi Bouzid with international media.
Breaking through the media blackout
Mohamed Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to set himself alight in an act of public protest.
Abdesslem Trimech, to name one of many cases occurred without any significant media attention, set himself ablaze in the town of Monastir on March 3 after facing bureaucratic hindrance in his own work as a street vendor.
Neither was it evident that the protests that begin in Sidi Bouzid would spread to other towns. There had been similar clashes between police and protesters in the town of Ben Guerdane, near the border with Libya, in August.
The key difference in Sidi Bouzid was that locals fought to get news of what was happening out, and succeeded.
“We could protest for two years here, but without videos no one would take any notice of us,” Horchani said.
On December 17, he and Ali Bouazizi, a cousin of Mohamed Bouazizi, posted a video of a peaceful protest led by the young man’s mother outside the municipality building.
That evening, the video was aired on Al Jazeera’s Mubasher channel. Al Jazeera’s new media team, which trawls the web looking for video from across the Arab world, had picked up the footage via Facebook.
Tunisian media, in contrast, ignored the growing uprising until Nessma TV broke the silence on December 29.
And aside from a solid core of activists, most Tunisians did not dare repost the videos on Facebook or even to “like” them, until president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s final hours.
Yet even if a muted majority did not actively share news of the protests online until mid-January, Tunisia’s 3.6 million internet users – a third of the population, one of the highest penetration rates on the African continent, according to Internet World Stats – were able to follow news of the uprising on social media thanks to a solid core of activists.
Throughout the uprising, Tunisian protesters relied on Facebook to communicate with each other. Facebook, unlike most video sharing sites, was not included in Tunisia’s online censorship.
Non-internet users kept abreast of the protests via satellite news channels including Al Jazeera, France 24 and, playing catch-up on its competitors, Al Arabiya.
The hashtags on Twitter tell the tale of how the uprising went from being local to national in scope: #bouazizi became #sidibouzid, then #tunisia.
Media wars get physical
The Tunisian authorities in the region tried every means possible to thwart the flow of videos. There were internet and power outages in Sidi Bouzid and neighbouring towns.
On January 3, a string of web activists were struck by a systematic, government-organised “phishing” operation aimed at wiping out their online dissent.
Bloggers, web activists and a rapper who had published a song criticising the government on YouTube were arrested on January 7.
In spite of the attempts to silence them, people went to extreme lengths to make sure their videos were posted on the web.
Ali Bouazizi still has a black eye where police struck him in retaliation for his videos.
From the courtroom to Facebook
Dhafer Salhi, a local lawyer who witnessed Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation, said he asked the head of police to meet with the young man’s family that day to try to defuse the anger on the street.
“I told [the head of police] that if you don’t get [the Bouazizi family] in, the country will be burned,” Salhi said. “He refused, by arrogance and ignorance.”
Frustrated by the lack of accountability by officials, Salhi became an active participant in the protests.
The lawyer used Facebook to organise protests, sending out invites to his friends.
He was one of the web activists targeted by the Tunisian authorities in the phishing operation. They managed to hijack his Facebook account, but Salhi simply created a new account.
Protesters get organised
The protests that erupted in Sidi Bouzid were indeed spontaneous, yet they were marked by a level of organisation and sophistication that appears grounded in the sheer determination of those who participated in them.
The Sidi Bouzid branch of the UGTT was engaged in the uprising from day one.
While the national leadership of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is generally viewed as lacking political independence from the ruling class, its regional representatives have a reputation for gutsy engagement.
“The major driving force behind these protesters is the Sidi Bouzid union, which is very strong,” said Affi Fethi, who teaches physics at a local high school.
For Fethi, it was when police killed protesters in nearby towns including Menzel Bouziane and Regueb that the regional protests became a nationwide uprising.
“The person who helped this revolt the most is Ben Ali himself,” he said. “Why didn’t he make [the police] use rubber bullets?”
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that no opposition party – to the extent that independent parties existed under Ben Ali’s rule – was involved in co-ordinating the early protests, or even in offering moral support.
Grassroots members of some opposition movements did, however, play an active role as individual activists (Ali Bouazizi, for instance, is a member of the Progressive Democratic Party).
Watching the political theatre from afar
Students, teachers, the unemployed and lawyers joined forces in Sidi Bouzid and neighbouring towns, braving torture and arrest.
Nacer Beyaou, a student, said the uprising was about freedom and employment.
The people of Sidi Bouzid feel their region is neglected, he said, and suffer from “abject destitution”.
Yet now that the political momentum has moved to the capital, many locals fear that their region is once again being sidelined.
“They’ve forgotten about us completely. There’s not a single minister from Sidi Bouzid,” the student said.
Summing up the combination of poverty and humiliation that many people in Sidi Bouzid say pushed them to rise up in protest, another man put it this way:
“Every day I ask my father to give me one dinar [70 cents], and I’m thirty years old.”
A sign of the uncertainty that many are feeling here, the man was forthright in his political views, but said he preferred not to give his name “in case Ben Ali comes back”.
Now that the politicians in Tunis have taken over, he said it was like sitting back and watching the theatre.
With the initial euphoria that came when Ben Ali fled the country fast fading, the question here is whether or not there will be any tangible political and economic gains for Sidi Bouzid in the “new” Tunisia.
The conclusion of a two-part series. See also: “The tragic life of a street vendor,” the story of Mohamed Bouazizi.
Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter @yasmineryan.