My thoughts on why the Tunisian revolution marks the beginning of the end for the world's dictators - also published in The Times today:
Every revolution needs a catchphrase. The Tunisian uprising’s iconic image is a protestor holding a placard proclaiming: “Game Over”, as indeed it is for President ben-Ali. Note please that “Game Over” is English, not French or Arabic, the local languages.
The Arab world’s first people’s revolution is also the most media savvy in history. Which is why despots everywhere should be very worried indeed. There has already been a lot of excited talk that the Tunisian uprising is the world’s first Twitter Revolution, Wikileaks Revolution and Facebook Revolution. All of these new media did play crucial roles. Twitter provided second by second updates of events on the ground, operating at its best like a crowd-sourced news agency. Col. Qaddafi in neighbouring Libya blamed a Wikileaks cable from the US embassy, which detailed the ruling family’s breathtaking avarice, for catalysing the unrest. He may be right. Nawaat.org, a Tunisian bloggers collective, even launched tunileaks.org to highlight and discuss the cable's explosive revelations.
Tunisia had one of the world’s strictest internet censorship regimes, but President ben-Ali did not block Facebook - probably believing that such a concession may help defuse the protests. If so, it was a massive mistake. Facebook is hugely popular in Tunisia and was probably the primary channel for organising protests and uploading video. Outsiders also chipped in. Anonymous, the hacking collective which led a cyber-onslaught on Pay Pal and Mastercard, launched ‘Operation Tunisia’ and brought down the Tunisian government website. Television was also crucial. Al-Jazeera, the region’s most popular television channel, broadcast powerful images of the unrest and police brutality to the millions of its viewers who are not on Facebook and have never heard of Twitter. New and old media converged to frame a narrative of the people vs the government that is still sending shock waves through the Arab world.
Ultimately, the internet, television and social networking were tools to be used by the Tunisians who took to the streets. Internet revolutions are a work in progress that began in Belgrade. In 1998 Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia, banned the opposition radio station B-92. Its journalists used the internet and servers in Amsterdam to get their stories out. Two years later the Milosevic regime was brought down by a popular uprising.
The people, not streams of binary code, depose tyrants. But the internet provides ever more efficient ways to communicate, collectively organise and channel years of pent-up fury. This convergence of popular anger, globalised information, decentralised, spontaneous networks with access to modern technology is unstoppable. For dictators across the world, ultimately, it’s game over.