Tunisia’s revolution wasn’t televised

U.S. media and government ignored the significance of the historic revolution in Tunisia.

by Lolla Mohammed Nur

Two weeks ago, most University of Minnesota students were probably busy enjoying their long-awaited winter breaks and gripped by the tragic shooting in Arizona.

So itâÄôs no surprise that most students didnâÄôt hear about TunisiaâÄôs revolution when it began brewing last month.

But had the first successful Arab revolt in the past generation occurred at any other time, we would have probably still missed it because of the small amount of media attention outside Arab and Francophone countries.

While TunisiaâÄôs homegrown, nonviolent revolution against two decades of political repression and dictatorial rule has literally moved the Arab world, Americans had to wait for the U.S. media to play catch-up in their reporting of the countryâÄôs historic changes.

Americans missed quite possibly one of our generationâÄôs greatest struggles for human rights, a movement that has debunked the myth that Arabs as a people are complacent in their own condition.

And for that, the U.S. media should feel embarrassed.

Even when there was coverage, American media pundits labeled TunisiaâÄôs movement a Twitter and Facebook revolution âÄî superficial clichés pundits already used to describe the Iranian and Moldovan revolutions.

A Foreign Policy magazine contributor even suggested it was a Wikileaks revolution, because “WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst: both a trigger and a tool for political outcry.”

University Professor Amel Khalfaoui, a Tunisian scholar who has lived in Minnesota for 10 years and teaches Arabic and linguistics, said she first heard about the revolt online, but sheâÄôs not aware of Tunisians calling it a Twitter or Wikileaks revolution.

“They call it âÄòOur RevolutionâÄô because itâÄôs by us and for us. This revolution is unique, and by all definitions itâÄôs a peopleâÄôs revolution,” she said.

Attributing a human revolution to social media is irrelevant because there have always been Facebook groups against the government and the Wikileaks cables on Tunisia were not revelatory, Khalfaoui said.

“I wish the [American] media described the glory of the people for the people, the glory of the youth for the youth âÄî the fact that people donâÄôt care about ideology or class when youâÄôre oppressed,” she said.

ItâÄôs obvious that social media played a crucial role in disseminating information to Tunisians at home and abroad and it was a necessary substitute given the glaring absence of mainstream media coverage.

However, Twitter users across the world joked about AmericaâÄôs silence. Tweets pointed out that when the BBC reported TunisiaâÄôs ex-dictator fled to Saudi Arabia, CNN was interviewing a game show host while MSNBC reported that Martha StewartâÄôs dog bit her lip.

Tunisian-American Asma Day is a University physiology sophomore who said she was lucky to learn about the revolution almost immediately through Al Jazeera news because she was in Oman during winter break.

But when Day came back to Minneapolis, she was disappointed that MSN, her main news source, mainly displayed stories about celebrity fashion.

“I actually had to go and search [the words] âÄòTunisia violenceâÄô to get an article,” she said. “It is scary how quiet the U.S. and Europe were. [Tunisians] thought the U.S. would step up and do something.”

In some ways, the American mediaâÄôs initial lack of interest and its superficial reportage is understandable. Tunisia isnâÄôt a strategic geographic or economic U.S. interest, and itâÄôs not a key player in the Arab world either.

But anyone would think that if an entire country erupted in nonviolent, grassroots people power, in effect overwhelming its police force to the extent that 2,000 officers joined the revolt, it would âÄî put simply âÄî be news.

Even our government has remained tightlipped about events in Tunisia, a “secular” and “modern” U.S. ally, according to American news commentators, that was relatively cooperative in the war on terror.

“Each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people,” reads a brief Jan. 14 written statement from President Barack Obama. “I have no doubt that TunisiaâÄôs future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.”

The presidentâÄôs comments about Tunisia are a blatant contrast to our countryâÄôs intrusive foreign policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Why is Tunisia any different?

Perhaps because although the previous regime jailed citizens, restricted freedom of speech and repressed religious freedom for the Muslim-majority in its own country, the U.S. recognizes its “200 years of common interests” with the country, including combating terrorism, according to a Wikileaks cable.

“Since independence, Tunisia deserves credit for its economic and social progress,” the cable ironically states.

Part of the reason American media failed to grasp the significance of TunisiaâÄôs revolution is the silence of our own government officials.

Still, Khalfaoui said the fact that the U.S. did not physically intervene is a blessing.

“We showed that you cannot impose democracy or use power to install democracy. It has to be done by the people themselves. Democracies and freedom must be owned and earned, without violence,” she said with pride.

“We earned freedom from France and everybody feels like Tunisia got its second independence âĦ Like Obama said, âÄòYes we can,âÄô Tunisians say, âÄòYes we do!âÄô”


Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at [email protected].