15 January 2011

Revolution 2.0

There is a particularly annoying and self-congratulatory article at Wired today on the current turmoil in Tunisia, patting the global web community on the back for overthrowing a regime, an Iran 2.0 if you will, this time out of beta and actually achieving its goals. It highlights the efforts taken by the Tunisia state-controlled ISP to block access to social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube etc), the round-up of a blogger or two by the police, and general outcry and responses from international hacktivists. Unfortunately by the time this revolution was even mentioned in the Western press it was all over bar the civil war and was far too late for anyone to bring down a dictator by changing their profile picture to green, blue, yellow or any other of their favourite power rangers.

As with Iran the story will eventually emerge after the jingoistic chest thumping of the digerati has moved on to the next event that proves their awesome might that, surprise, surprise, given the relatively low internet penetration, tight control over all forms of media by the state, and general poverty of the majority of the populace, the web had little to do with anything. The mobile phone, not a smart phone but the most basic of handsets with the odd SMS here and there, will prove to have been the only technological tool used.

There are only four things that can topple an authoritarian regime: 1) External military intervention, 2) External political intervention backed up by the threat of military intervention or the promise of personal financial support for any leader that chooses to leave voluntarily, 3) Revolt by the national armed forces and/or police, 4) Mass protests in the streets that are unopposed by the national armed forces and/or police. Recent events in Tunisia fall broadly into this last category, but no doubt there was extensive behind-the scenes bribery of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali that helped in his decision to flee.

On 17th December Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old graduate, set himself on fire in protest over his long-term unemployment and rising food and cooking oil prices. As protests against the security forces and government spread a second man electrocuted himself in protest a few days later, and then on the 24th December the National Guard shot dead a third man protesting outside their barracks. The number of dead then sadly rose sharply in the New Year, with estimates of casualties now ranging between 23 and 60.

To assert that the actions of a group of uninvolved passive watchers half a world away who Tweeted their support in between trash talking Justin Bieber is an insult both to the dead and to the many thousands of living who took to the streets every day to use their bodies and lives as the only weapons they had against an oppressive regime, a regime that only last year President Obama tried to sell 12 Sikorsky military helicopters to in a deal worth $282 million, on top of $349 million worth of arms sales in the previous twenty years.

But then I suppose that a brutal authoritarian regime supported and supplied by the US being overthrown by the sacrifices of an impoverished and hungry populace makes for less of a feel-good story in Wired than plucky young geeks using US web-tech for regime change.

Sometimes the industry I work in sickens me.

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