Tunisians don’t need advice from the Twittering classes

The inspiring uprising springs from people’s aspiration for real freedom, not from Western Wikileakers revealing ‘the truth’ to Africans.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Anyone who believes in freedom and democracy will be thoroughly heartened by recent events in Tunisia. A corrupt, authoritarian leader, backed for years by Western governments, has been swept aside by people rampaging for greater freedom and economic security. It’s an inspiring moment. And yet how is it being interpreted by Western observers? As a ‘Wikileaks revolution’ or a ‘Twitter war’ – terms which expose both the Western political class’s seriously emaciated skills of social analysis and also its self-obsession, where the implication is that if hadn’t been for us media-savvy whiteys exposing Tunisian corruption, those people would never have had the tools or the know-how to rise up against their rulers.

The uprising in Tunisia shows that there is a positive aspiration in African countries for freedom. Real freedom. After 23 years of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s rule – 23 years of authoritarianism, corruption and the flimsiest kind of ‘democracy’ – protesting groups of students and workers pushed him aside in a matter of days. And despite Ben Ali’s fleeing to Saudi Arabia, the protests are continuing, with throngs of people demanding that Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR), be removed from power entirely and play no role in the new unity government that has been formed. This has come as a blow to Mohamed Ghannouchi, the CDR prime minister who became president upon Ali’s fleeing, who has been depicted as something of an Aung San Suu Kyi-style hero in Western media coverage. (The Western media far prefer morally upstanding, ideally LSE-educated individuals to unpredictable groups of angry plebs.)

Indeed, many Western observers seem perturbed that the protests continued post-Ben Ali. It is striking that some reports shifted from describing the protests as a ‘Jasmine revolution’ to fretting over the potential ‘slide into chaos’. One confused-sounding journalist reports that many of Tunisia’s political classes had ‘hoped that the toppling of Ben Ali would satisfy protesters’. The still-tense situation in the city of Tunis, where according to the BBC there are ‘occasional skirmishes interspersed with scenes of celebration’, is referred to as a ‘post-uprising riddle’. But this is no riddle. These onlookers have simply failed to learn one of the key lessons of history, which is that when protesting groups of people get a sense of their own power, of their ability to shape events and mould history, they are likely to push further and harder, to seek to go beyond their initially fairly limited demands. In this sense, we should hope the protesting continues, and that the people of Tunisia wring as many democratic concessions as they can from their rulers.

If the protests have unnerved some initially quite excited reporters, they have also – implicitly – challenged the idea that it falls to the so-called humanitarians of the West to liberate Africans from tyranny. The Tunisian uprising leaves that notion in tatters, for it was Western governments that helped to keep Ben Ali in power for 23 years. Cheered as a loyal ally in Africa, a keen supporter of the ‘war on terror’, Tunisia under Ben Ali was backed by both Washington and Paris (the former colonial power). Ben Ali’s regime received an estimated $350million in US military aid between 1987 and 2009. In 2009, following Ben Ali’s re-election for the fifth time in a row with over 90 per cent of the vote, Abdul-Raouf Ayadi, vice-president of the banned outfit the Congress for Democracy, said: ‘Western countries are backing the dictatorship in Tunisia and giving it financial and media support.’ Tunisia shows that the last thing Africans need is Western interference; that only hampers their ability to take command of their affairs, by allowing the expedient desires of foreign governments to override the interests of African people.

Yet in the Western re-telling, these impressive events have been reduced to a kind of super-angry form of blogging; they have been repackaged as the streetfighting equivalent of the inane Twittering that sucks up so much of the time of today’s chattering classes and self-obsessed students. Lacking the ability to provide a serious social analysis of the make-up of the Tunisian protesters (who are largely educated young people who have had enough of political corruption), or a political analysis of the West’s role in shoring up authoritarianism in Tunis, many have simply labelled the protests a ‘Twitter uprising’ or a ‘Facebook revolution’. Their dearth of analytical nous means that they obsessively focus on the trappings of the uprising (there’s no doubt that some social-networking tools were used for the purposes of communication), rather than addressing the substance of the uprising.

There is a strong streak of paternalism in this view of the fury in Tunisia. This can be seen most clearly in the labelling of the uprising as ‘the world’s first Wikileaks revolution’. Some claim that ‘the whistleblower website played a major role in stirring up public anger against Ben Ali’s corruption’, by publishing internal US cables that compared Ben Ali and his siblings to the mafia. Even the much-respected Foreign Policy website says Wikileaks was ‘a trigger and a tool for political outcry’ in Tunisia. The idea that Tunisians needed St Julian of Assange to unveil to them the corrupt, undemocratic shenanigans of their own rulers is bizarre. As one more critical account points out, ‘Tunisians have been documenting abuses by the Ben Ali regime and the first family for years’. Various civil society groups and political opposition movements were compiling reports on Ben Ali, and circulating them in the face of often draconian censorship, while Assange was still at a start-up company and writing demented documents about evil corporatist governments mind-controlling the masses.

The idea that this was a ‘Wikileaks revolution’, an uprising brought about by a revelation of the truth by wise men in the West, is more than just another example of media self-obsession and self-congratulation – it is an updated version of the White Man’s Burden. This is the White Wikileakers’ Burden, the notion that it falls to media-savvy folk over here to open the eyes and energise the hearts of enslaved brown people over there. Tunisian authoritarianism was backed for years by Western governments as part of the fantasy politics of saving the world from African chaos and Islamic fundamentalism – and now a Tunisian uprising is depicted as simply a physical extension of the fantasy politics of bedroom-based bloggers and leakers who seem to believe they can liberate people at the push of a button. The people of Tunisia come out of this uprising well; Western politicians and observers do not.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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