Social Media Plays Role in Toppling Tunisian President

Thousands take to the Internet and the streets to force out longtime leader.

January 14, 2011, 1:00 PM

Jan. 14, 2011— -- Tunisia has been rocked by protests that have apparently forced longtime president Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali to step down and flee the country. Reports now say that Ben Ali has landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, while the nation's prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, claimed to have taken control of the country.

Supporters of the movement to oust the president celebrated in the capital city of Tunis, shouting, "Victory! This is a historical moment in Tunisia. Proud to be Tunisian."

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Rioters took to the streets protesting unemployment and rising food prices. The situation escalated into chaos; news spread quickly on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as protesters voiced their anger in the capital and cities across the country.

The Arab world is watching for wider implications; Jordan and parts of North Africa saw similar protests on Friday.

About 50 activists in Egypt gathered outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo to celebrate, chanting and singing "Ben Ali, tell [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too!" The Associated Press reported. Arabs across the region turned to Twitter and Facebook to celebrate the anti-government protests, and many people changed their profile pictures to the Tunisian flag.

Youssef Gaigi, a blogger and one of the protesters in Tunis, described the scene in the city. He and others were cordially talking to police, "then suddenly, everything changed," he said.

Police clashed with rioters, some of whom climbed the walls of the Interior Ministry, reportedly the site of torture for years.

"They started throwing gas bombs at us. I hear there were shootings downtown and some people were killed, we can't be sure. People spread, they started throwing rocks and things erupted," Gaigi, now safe at a friend's house, said. "We're very, very afraid. We are seeing smoke all over the city."

Complaints of dictatorship, of a lack of freedom have filled the streets and the blogosphere, with Twitter updates flagged #sidibouzid giving a picture of the unrest in the country.

"It's probably too soon to see how large a role social media played, but I think it definitely played an enormous role in grabbing the attention of the rest of the world," said Jillian York of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

York, who specializes in free expression, politics, and the Internet, particularly in the Arab world, said, "The Tunisian perception at this point seems to be there was a gap in the global mainstream media, and so Tunisians took to the blogs and Twitter to get information out there to everyone else."

Gaigi said a friend shared a Facebook invitation with him to participate in the protests today, and he called recent events "a Twitter revolution."

"When you hear lots of people talk, you can detect what is [the] opinion of [the] majority, and you can share your thoughts with them ... and coordinate," he said. In some cities in Tunisia, "they even used Twitter to share positions of snipers," he said. "We shared everything."

Posts Friday announced to the world, "Dictator #BenAli flees #Tunisia in total cowardice; a new era of #Revolution has begun #SidiBouzid #Victory" and "I still can't believe what happened! thank you Tunisia for restoring our hope in a better future for Arabs #sidibouzid #tunisia."

BBC correspondent Wyre Davies, reporting from Tunis, said, "It's been quite a remarkable 24 hours."

"This is a country where the government has had incredibly tight controls on the Internet, on the free press," he said. "Things like Twitter, Facebook, all of these other new norms were incredibly powerful."

Some of the most powerful footage of the riots and protests was "raw footage on shaky mobile phones and then disseminated through the Internet," Davies said. "That was an incredibly powerful way for people to get their message across."

Gaigi said he feels "very powerful today" because he and his "fellow Tunisians overthrew a government that every single foreign nation supported."

President Obama released a statement condemning the use of violence against citizens voicing their opinions in Tunisia.

"I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard," the statement said.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Arab leaders from around the region, urging them to reform and engage with their populations. She warned that if leaders do not give youth in their populations a voice in society, others will. She said the region was at "a critical moment," creating "a test of leadership for all of us."

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"If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum," Clinton said during a forum in Doha, Qatar Thursday. "Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence."

Reading a statement on television, Tunisia's prime minister Ghannouchi announced he would take over the position of president as Ben Ali "cannot practice his authorities."

"I call upon all people of Tunisia of different backgrounds to be patriotic and to be united for the sake of our beloved country," he said.

Ben Ali, 74, took power in Tunisia after a bloodless coup in 1987. In an attempt to hold onto power, the president declared a state of emergency, dissolved the government and promised new elections. State media reports he fled to Malta, and that members of his family are in custody.

"It's an incredible situation if you think that just 24 hours ago this was a state with a very strong president," Davies said. "So great, so relentless has been the sway of opposition against this authoritarian regime, that [Ben Ali's] generals and his political allies told him he had to go."

The government reports at least 23 people have been killed in the rioting, but opposition members said the death toll could be triple that. On Friday, Air France, one of the main airlines serving the country, said it suspended flights to Tunisia following the closure of its airspace.

On Wednesday, more than 5,000 people reportedly participated in the funeral of the young man whose self-immolation is credited with setting off the violent protests. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17 after police confiscated the produce he sold without a permit, an act that sparked the unrest in the popular Mediterranean tourist destination.

Bouazizi, 26, was educated but unable to find work. Unemployment stands at around 14 percent in the North African nation, but is much higher outside the capital city and tourist destinations.

The whistleblower website WikiLeaks is credited with stirring the anger of the Tunisian people. Users of Facebook and other social networking sites spread comments about U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, which described corruption in Tunisia and called the country a "police state." The Associated Press reported ordinary Tunisians "felt vindicated to see the U.S. diplomatic cables."

The cables described the president and his family as having a lavishly corrupt lifestyle -- a life of mansions and yachts, while the nation suffers under soaring unemployment and food prices.

One leaked cable told how the president's son owned a tiger and flew in ice cream from overseas.

The WikiLeaks cables "definitely had an influence" on the rioting, York said. "But at the same time, there were numerous Tunisian sites over the past few years that paid attention to the excesses of government."

ABC News' Lara Setrakian, Lama Hasan, Jake Tapper, Richard Coolidge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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