Christine Moderbacher reports
Oppression shall then vanish,
Shackles are certain to break!
The closing lines of the Tunisian national anthem are been sung with fervor in the streets of Tunis, capital of Africa’s most northeastern country. After two decades of torture, harassment and arrests, the people of Tunisia are ready to break their silence and condemn the brutal rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Their actions are chipping away at the peaceful façade he has fought to maintain and finally focusing media attention on the deaths, unlawful detentions and corruption that have resulted from government efforts to keep dissent at bay.
According to eye witness reports collected through Facebook, at least 50 people have been killed and hundreds injured during protests in Kasserine, Thala, Meknassi and Erregueb, small cities troubled by high unemployment rates and poverty. Government statements that report fewer casualties and claim that police fired on crowds “in legitimate self defense” have only fueled anger.
The uprisings have been traced to December 17, when a young man named Mohammad Bouazizi attempted suicide after being harassed by the police. The 26 year-old had been selling fruit and vegetables without a license in Sidi Bouzid, a small city in the center of the country. A constable confiscated his scales and produce, depriving a family’s breadwinner of their only means of income. Before setting himself on fire, Bouazizi tried to report the incident at a local government building. He was turned away.
The incident came shortly after the government blocked internet access to Wikileak’s US embassy cables, which referred to the Ben Ali regime as corrupt and out of touch. As Bouazizi lay dying in his hospital bed, civil unrest exploded onto the streets. At first, demonstrators organised to bring attention to the country’s high unemployment rate, which stands at 23 percent among college graduates. Seizing the opportunity for dissent, public outcry has swiftly turned against the regime in general.
|President Ben Ali|
Now, the protests have finally caught the attention of a western media hesitant to look beneath the glossy veneer of a country marketed as the perfect European holiday destination and role-model for democracy and modernism within North Africa.
According to Amnesty International, the Tunisian government has been “misleading the world” with a positive image of their human rights record. State-sanctioned torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances are common place. Unfair trials and abuse committed by prison guards is well documented and refugees forcibly returned from abroad face severe retribution. The Economist ranks Tunisia as an “authoritarian regime” and Reporters Without Boarders ranks the country 143rd out of 173 regarding press freedom.
Liberties have been further eroded under the veil of “fighting terrorism”. In return for their condemnation of the 9/11 attacks and cooperation in the global international efforts to combat violent extremism, a blind eye has been turned to the entrenched corruption and human rights abuses blighting the Tunisian state. Young intellectuals and political artists have been particularly targeted in recent years, while internet access is heavily censored. Freedom of speech does not exist in any practical sense.
The detainees are all ‘cyberactivist’, trying to break through the walls of censorship erected by the Tunisian Internet Agency (TIA), which have blocked sites including YouTube. Of the 15 countries surveyed in Freedom House’s 2009 Freedom of the Net survey, Tunisia tied with China as the second worst performing country.
Facebook is one remaining avenue for communication with the outside world. Sabina has used the site to post her concerns for her husband’s safety and communicate with other activists. Others are updating their profile picture with a black version of the Tunisian flag, a collective symbol of mourning and resistance.
According to Sabina’s Facebook wall, her husband, along with Hamada and the other cyberactivists, were released without charge on Sunday 9 January. What happened to them in detention remains unknown, however, as Sabina’s last message explains that she will no longer have access to the internet, or a computer. Reports are now surfacing that the TIA has begun blocking proxy sites and using sophisticated methods to steal users’ passwords for Facebook, as well as Gmail and Twitter, and access account information.