Hey Tunisia, Payback’s a Bitch

For the past month, Tunisia has been in a state of open revolt. What began as some run-of-the-mill protests has evolved into the overthrow of the mafia-esque government of President Ben Ali, which has run the country for 23 years.

Ostensibly, the protests began in mid-December after a 27-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the government’s not allowing his selling fruit on the street, despite it being his only form of income. This young man’s act, and those of at least three others (accounts vary), which Al Jazeera called “suicidal protests of despair by Tunisia’s youth,” are only one piece of the multi-layered drama that continues to unfold in the north African country.

A number of contributing factors, including the unpopular government, an economy in shambles, and general unrest, set the stage for the past weeks’ events. But, the leaked State Department cables illustrating the world’s knowledge of the dismal state of the country and the government’s subsequent blocking of Wikileaks (and other sites like YouTube and Flickr) were the sparks that ignited a peoples’ uprising. However, the surprising thing here is that a large number of people who involved themselves in this revolution weren’t, in fact, Tunisians.

Similar to the so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran, the Internet played a huge role in what happened in Tunisia, but the important thing to note is, it was censorship of Wikileaks, specifically, and the information that was detailed in the leaks that really pushed the people to take to the streets. Many in the press are comparing Tunisia to Iran, as well as other color revolutions, even naming this one the Jasmine Revolution. But, it was through the help of Anonymous that this revolution actually got off the ground. (Iran being essentially a failure; Ahmedinejad is still the President.)

Following the shut down of the open Internet and Wikileaks, Operation Tunisia went into effect. True to form, Anonymous, which champions the free flow of information and has taken to attacking any organization, business or government that is perceived to be anti-Wikileaks, through coordinated DDoS attacks, took down government sites, servers and state-run media channels. The government’s homepage was even replaced with a picture of a pirate ship under the words “Payback is a Bitch, Isn’t It?”

Over the past year or so, as Anonymous’ infamy has grown, the press has consistently described it as a “loose-knit group of hackers.”

This is both true and mostly false.

In an open letter last month, Anonymous stated that it is “just an idea – an internet meme – that can be appropriated by anyone, anytime, to rally for a common cause that’s in the benefit of human kind. This means anyone can launch a new ideological message or campaign under the banner of Anonymous. Anyone can take up a leading role in spreading the Anon-consciousness.”

Essentially, everyone is Anonymous, and by using the term “hacker,” the media has put people under the impression that Anonymous is a bunch of 17-year-olds in their parents’ basements – the accepted image that accompanies the word “hacker.”

But, Anonymous is growing. While it’s true that Anonymous was born out of hacker hangout /b/ on 4chan, it is now all-encompassing, open to all people, everywhere, and were it not, Tunisia would never have happened.

The overthrow of the corrupt government was physically executed by brave patriots on the streets of Tunis and other cities, it’s true, but, in a Jan. 2 press release, Anonymous said, “Anonymous has heard the claim for freedom from the Tunisian people. Anonymous is willing to help the Tunisian people in this fight against oppression,” and they did. By branching out of chat rooms and forums and taking to the mainstream Internet, like Twitter and Facebook, Anonymous has opened up and allowed anyone, anywhere to participate in showing support for the operation in Tunisia, spreading information, and, really, taking Internet activism up a couple notches from where it was during the protests in Iran.

Now, there are discussion groups, threads, and sites easily accessible on the open Internet, making it easy for Anonymous to shed its “hacker” identity and morph into an idea anyone can jump on. Not every “Anon” participated in the attacks on the Tunisian government servers and not every “Anon” participates in every operation that’s billed under the Anonymous umbrella.

For example, on Jan. 15,thousands of members of Anonymous across the world joined Tunisia in protest, clamoring for a free flow of information and – here’s the kicker – a lot of those protesters were just average people, like you and me. Not hackers, not masked cyber vigilantes, not even activists necessarily, just concerned citizens.

Wikileaks may have been the catalyst for Tunisia, but it was just the beginning. By orchestrating a way for people to look in on their governments, Wikileaks created a thirst for knowledge in people everywhere, the result of which is humans looking out for each other, using online channels to promote ideas like “freedom” and “democracy.”

The old-guard Tunisian government was just the first to fall to our generation’s way of protesting, where people all over the world are moved to stand up to oppressors and throw open the doors to an open, online society of free-thinkers.

WATCH: German-Tunisians thank Anonymous for the help (Translation in the YouTube description)

Editor’s Update: The New York Times reported shortly after the publishing of this post that three other men, one in Egypt, one in Algeria and one in Mauritania, had lit themselves on fire in protest. The article called it a “gruesome testimony to the power of the Tunisian example.” The day-old unity government in Tunisia faced resistance as citizens protested against the new cabinet, saying essentially that these new guys were in cahoots with the old ones and that they will protest “until the government collapses.” The protests had been mostly led by recent college grads and young adults, nearly a third of whom are unemployed, according to the article, but have since come to involve small business owners and other professionals. And as reports of rooftop snipers surfaced, the interior minister begged for calm and put the death count at 78. My hopes are with the Tunisian people. I’m rooting for you!

Alex Pearlman I love the John Adams miniseries, the Disney version of Peter Pan, and 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.' My heroes include Aaron Sorkin, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Steinem, Woody Allen and Allen Ginsberg. I don't like the two-party system, I do like crossword puzzles. I like red wine, I don't like fascists. I like big ideas, I don't like apathy. I like Wikileaks, I don't like censorship. I believe journalism needs a full-blown revolution to survive. Also, I'm the Editor in Chief of The Next Great Generation. Twitter: @lexikon1

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4 Responses to “Hey Tunisia, Payback’s a Bitch”

  1. Jen Kalaidis

    AWESOME!!! This story is so fascinating. Governments can try their hardest to suppress information, but at the end of the day, it’s going to leak anyway. Perhaps this should be a lesson for governments that if you refuse to own up to it publicly, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

  2. Steve

    Hey alex-

    good piece. One comment though – the comparison to Iran you have seen in the media is to the revolution there in 1979, which resulted in the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi, not the large protests of the Green movement, which did not convey any revolutionary views. They remained loyal to the concept of an Islamic state (by and large), as well as the continued rule of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. They simply believed that the election of Ahmadinejad was fraudulent, a conclusion for which there has never been any direct evidence.

    Keep up the good work.



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