Social Media Gets Credit For Tunisian Overthrow

Interim leaders are holding talks in Tunisia to try to form a unity government after a month of protests that led to the president fleeing. Young, educated bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook users are being credited with bringing down the regime.

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In Tunisia today, interim leaders are holding talks to try to form a unity government, after a month of violent protests toppled the government there. Two days ago, Tunisias president fled the country - many reasons are being cited for his overthrow. But many credit the Internet and young, educated bloggers, tweeters and Facebook users for bringing down the regime.

Eleanor Beardsley is in the Tunisian capital of Tunis and sends this report.

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Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Just around the corner from Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where massive demonstrations forced President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from office Friday, crowds of mostly middle-aged men drink coffee and watch al-Jazeera Television at the Ali Baba Cafe. Upstairs, several young people click away on computers in the cafes Internet room.

The government had attempted to control the internet by blocking sites like YouTube. Nevertheless, the Web played a principle role in the Tunisian peoples revolution.

Salouah Daloumi(ph) is a computer engineer. But like many educated young Tunisians, she didnt have the political connections to get a job. So she used her skills elsewhere.

Daloumi says President Ben Ali tried to block the cell phone videos of the first killings of protesters in the south of the country.

Mr. SALOUAH DALOUMI (Computer Engineer): He make a firewall to filter this video. But we can make upload and we can download it in the laptop. And after, we give it to the people.

BEARDSLEY: Daloumi says those videos were the Tunisian peoples connection with reality. They soon spread like wildfire and were picked up by global cable networks, BBC World and al-Jazeera. No one here trusts the Tunisian media, says Daloumi.

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BEARDSLEY: She calls the state television a complete joke. Indeed, on Friday when demonstrations and riots engulfed Tunis, the official channel played music and aired call-in chat shows, never even mentioning what was going on in the streets.

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BEARDSLEY: Outside, 50,000 protesters had gathered on Tunis main avenue, chanting Ben Ali leave, and singing the national anthem.

Mohamed Ben Hazouz(ph) is a blogger and software engineer. He says Fridays massive demonstration was completely organized on the Internet. He calls what happened in Tunisia the worlds first cyber-net revolution.

Mt. MOHAMED BEN HAZOUZ (Software Engineer/Blogger): Everyone in Tunisia was connected to the Internet, to the site of the bloggers, to the site of Facebook, to Twitter, to organize the revolution.

BEARDSLEY: The protests that toppled the Tunisian government were set off when a young man set himself on fire in desperation, after the government took away his only livelihood - a fruit stand.

As the protests began to spread, the Tunisian Internet Agency ramped up its attempts at controlling it. They even began hauling bloggers into police custody.

But government authorities were no match for Tunisias tech-savvy youth, says Claire Spencer, a Middle East specialist at London-based think tank Chatham House.

Dr. CLAIRE SPENCER (Head, Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House): I think there is definitely a generation whove understood the technology of how to circumvent banned websites. The moment something is banned, somebody in this country is breaking through it and going around it. So its been counterproductive in recent years in terms of a control strategy.

BEARDSLEY: Spencer says other dictatorships in the region, like Tunisias next door neighbor Libya, must clearly be nervous at whats going on. This morning, cable news showed President Moammar Gadhafi warning his citizens that Tunisia was in such chaos that people risked being slaughtered in their beds.

Spencer says the ouster of dictators in places like Libya and Egypt may not be imminent, but she feels changes are on the horizon.

Dr. SPENCER: This is a generation that is educated, is well-informed, that will be more demanding of their rights to participate, to have a civic role in their state, and not to sit through gerrymandered elections and lack of participation in the economy.

BEARDSLEY: Tunisians say theyre proud that the worlds eyes are upon them and for being the first country to tweet out a tyrant.

For NPR news, Im Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis.

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