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Tunisia: Twitter Revolution vs. Twitter Impeachment

Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

Well, it seems like I picked a bad week to minimize the effectiveness of social media as tools for organizing political protest against authoritarian regimes. In all fairness to both sides of the discussion, very few observers are arguing that social media alone can topple tyrants, and I was not saying that social media can not help in that effort. But proponents of social media as primary news and information sources during such events are likely to take comfort from the week's events in Tunisia.

Pending more thorough analysis, I still think that would be premature, not only because it's uncertain of how instrumental social media was, not in getting information out of Tunisia, but in circulating information within Tunisia.

But it's also not yet clear what the removal of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali represents in terms of the country's internal power dynamics. With the caveat that the following analysis is based on general political theory and second-hand analysis rather than a personal familiarity with Tunisia itself, for now, it resembles more an impeachment than a revolution. The Tunisian regime threw Ben Ali under the bus in order to preserve itself, but the regime itself remains a construction of Ben Ali's rule.

It remains to be seen whether and how far the Tunisian people drive their demands for real political change, and how the regime responds in the event that happens. But the fact that Ben Ali's removal was the result of a spontaneous and loosely organized uprising, rather than concerted and organized opposition, suggests that the decisive element in the equation will be the internal power struggle that now seems to be breaking out within the security apparatus.

Finally, the obvious comparison here is the wave of Iranian protests following the June 2009 presidential election. I'd argue that what made it easier for the Tunisian regime to sacrifice Ben Ali was the very absence of a concerted opposition posing a credible threat to the regime, as well as the absence of significant pre-existing divisions within the regime. In Iran, the stakes were high for all the parties involved because there was a real struggle for power among bitterly opposed political factions. In Tunisia, up until last week, the largely undivided regime believed that it could retain its position with half-measures designed to soothe popular discontent. That proved to be a miscalculation, as each half-step back from the brink gave more oxygen to the protests.

Ben Ali's removal was the latest of those half-measures, but in addition to providing more oxygen to the protesters, it also creates a void within the regime itself. How that void is filled, and by whom, will now determine whether Ben Ali's "impeachment" leads to a revolution. If that does happen, I still believe it will be more the result of real-world networks of political opposition than of online networks.