Tunisia Among First Arab States Taken By New Media

Shaky images taken on cell phones and posted to social networks and sites like YouTube helped propel the popular revolt that forced the president of Tunisia to flee the country. Host Liane Hansen speaks with writer and scholar Marc Lynch about the role both new and old media played in the Tunisian revolution, and how similar scenarios could play out in the rest of the Arab world.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Some of the strongest images to come out of the revolution in Tunisia were blurry and shaky, taken on cell phones. The pictures and video of mass protests and the brutal government crackdown were posted to such sites as YouTube and Facebook.

Those videos helped galvanize the country and send its president into exile. But Marc Lynch says dont be too quick to give social media all the credit for the Tunisian revolution. Lynch is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. And he's in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Professor MARC LYNCH (Director, Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University): Thanks.

HANSEN: You say it's simplistic to call what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution. Why is that?

Prof. LYNCH: Well, Twitter mattered, as did Facebook, YouTube, SMS and a whole range of social media. But for them to have the full impact that they had, they needed to get those images out into the mass media where people who weren't in the network would be able to see them.

Now, al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite television stations had a very difficult time reporting from Tunisia. Their offices were shuttered. Their journalists were shutdown. So they needed to find another way to cover the country. They have actually perfected the art of using this kind of social media to get video, to get images through having to cover places like Iraq, where they were also banned. So they were very well-placed to do this.

They carefully monitored the Facebook pages, the YouTube sites. They got the images. They got the videos. And then they rebroadcast them. That then brought those images and videos to a much broader audience, and it couldnt be controlled by the Tunisian government anymore.

HANSEN: There have been comparisons to other autocratic regimes in that world since all of this happened. In your opinion, how likely is it that something like this will happen elsewhere?

Prof. LYNCH: I have to admit that Im a skeptic because I think that the other Arab regimes have learned the lesson. And the lesson is not be nicer to your people. It's if you see any sign of protest, stop it right away.

So what you're seeing right now are the Arab regimes are being very cautious about allowing demonstrations. And they're also doing things to try and buy off their people. They're slashing prices. They're clearly all now on their guard and are not going to be taken by surprise.

HANSEN: Well, let's talk about one: Egypt. A Facebook group is calling for protest on January 25th, and tens of thousands of people claim they're going to attend. And given what just happened in Tunisia, how do you think this kind of event is going to play out?

Prof. LYNCH: We'll all be watching it really carefully. The Egyptians have been protesting for years. This is not something which is new. The idea of trying to consciously emulate the Tunisian model of, like, these waves of protest that sweep the entire country is something which they would very much like to see work.

But we have to wait and see. I mean, there are very real differences in Tunisia and in Egypt.

HANSEN: But do you think these social media platforms, while they may not be the reason that these events have occurred in Tunisia, do you expect the social media platforms to play an even bigger role in the future?

Prof. LYNCH: The social media platforms clearly played an important role but everything now rests on whether the army decides to move quickly towards genuine democratic elections and allows the banned parties, like the Islamist Anetha Party(ph), to register and compete. So, this is not the time to stop paying attention to Tunisia just because the big images of protest have gone away because, in a sense, we don't yet know if there's been a fundamental change.

HANSEN: Marc Lynch is an associate professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. His Abu Aardvark blog is on ForeignPolicy.com. Thanks for coming in.

Prof. LYNCH: Thank you.

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