Social Media Didn't Oust Tunisia's President — The Tunisian People Did

Events in Tunisia are changing by the minute, but one thing is clear: This is the first popular uprising to bring down a leader in the Arab world in recent history. Who — or what — is responsible for it?

We should stop trying to fit the events in Tunisia into a Western context. It simplifies things, but it also overlooks the real forces of change at work in the North African country. This isn't about Facebook, or Wikileaks, or Twitter — it's about the people of Tunisia being fed up with decades of marginalization at the hands of a Western-backed kleptocracy, and taking charge of their own future. Among the issues that brought about the events of the last month: Low wages, few job prospects for a growing educated class, high food prices, and a heavy-handed government lead by former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not.

According to CNN's Ben Wedeman (via Twitter!), gunshots are still being heard in the streets of the capital, Tunis, and a prison fire this morning claimed the lives of at least 42 people. The BBC's Wyre Davies says, "There are tanks on virtually every corner in downtown Tunis." Police are reportedly looting government buildings as well as the homes and businesses of civilians. In short, the "Jasmine Revolution" is far from over.

The most important question now is what happens next? Ben Ali skulked out of the country and has (quite fittingly) taken up temporary residence at Disneyland Paris. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi briefly took over, but this morning was replaced by Speaker of Parliament Fouad Mebazaa. Yesterday, Cairo-based journalist Issandr El Amrani wrote at the Arabist:

In the meantime, though, we should not assume that Tunisia has become an instant democracy. The announcement today that Prime Minister Ghanouchi was assuming the presidency has yet to be accepted. Rioting and looting are continuing in the streets of major Tunisian cities, sometimes targeting the homes and businesses of regime cronies, but also of ordinary citizens. Some suspect police desertors to be looting. The situation is chaotic and the army is showing signs of wanting to impose order.

With no clear leadership with the moral authority to get people to go back to their homes, it may be days before the situation resolves itself. What interim president Ghanouchi does tomorrow in his meeting with the opposition — whose very definition will be controversial, notably over whether En-Nahda's Islamists could become part of an interim coalition government — will be crucial. Right now, there does not seem to be any indication that Tunisians are accepting any government as legitimate. Ghanouchi will have to either move quickly to build a credible alliance (here the international community may have a role in confering legitimacy) or step aside for someone who can.

And while Ghanouchi was quickly replaced, it's important to ask, as El Amrani does, whether Ben Ali regime figures will, or should, have a place in the new Tunisia. And if they do stick around, what role will they play? And what about the country's constitution? Currently, it impedes the growth of opposition parties and was built to keep one man in power. Many opposition members will want a clean slate, but the country does need some sort of transitional government to maintain order. We're a long way from knowing how this will all play out.

Another development to watch closely will be the effect this has on the despots and crooked monarchs who rule in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, and many other countries across the region. Arab media outlets were broadcasting striking images from Tunisia into millions of homes long before Western media found the air time, and the role Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and many other satellite news channels have played can't be underestimated.

The strongmen of the region have officially been put on notice.

Update: Ben Ali and his family's time in Eurodisney was short lived, they've moved on to Saudi Arabia.

[Image via AP]