I arrived in Tunis on January 1, only a few days after a wave of rallies had erupted due to the suicide of an unemployed college graduate, who torched himself after police confiscated his fruit cart, cutting off his only source of income. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, sold fruit and vegetables without the necessary vendor's permit in the town of Sidi Bouzid, located 160 miles from the country's capital Tunis.
At the time, Tunisians had been protesting for a couple of weeks over poor living conditions, high unemployment, government corruption and repression. Three people had been killed in the protests by the time of my arrival. The atmosphere was tense, public protests were rare in Tunisia where dissent was usually repressed; however, no one I spoke to in Tunis believed then that these demonstrations would lead to the ouster of President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali who eventually fled the country to Saudi Arabia after ruling Tunisia for 23 years.
The Jasmine Revolution, as it is dubbed now, was not televised on Tunisia's main television station, Tunisie7, nor did it make headlines in the local press, but the news spread like wildfire on Facebook, YouTube, mobile phone, and to a lesser extent on Twitter (most of the tweets were from outside Tunisia).
Prior to my arrival to Tunis, I had spent the past five weeks in the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories debating social media, its impact on youth, and its relationship with journalism in the Arab world with my interlocutors.
It is very easy, but over-simplistic and naive to decide on a social media interpretation for the Jasmine Revolution, as we have been witnessing by many bloggers and self-appointed Middle East experts, many of whom neither speak Arabic nor have spent an extended period of time in the Middle East. They desperately want to convince us that Tunisians needed an external technological Western invention in order to succeed. A Twitter revolution of some sorts, as they previously labeled the Iranian Velvet Revolution, as though Arab masses were not capable on their own of saying "enough is enough."
Certainly social media was used as a communication tool for Tunisians to air their frustrations with the economy, unemployment, censorship, and corruption. But many factors lead to its success, such as a well organized trade unions movement, and the most potent weapon in the Arab world, the youth.
Population ageing is widespread across the world, but most Arab countries have been experiencing a youth explosion. More than one third of them are now unemployed. Tunisia is a bit different since it is one of the few Arab countries that opted for a family planning policy initiated during the rule of its first president, Habib Bourguiba. Tunisia, however, has also adopted a development plan with a focus on higher education, leaving a large number of young college graduates unemployed.
When I was driving around in Tunis, posters of President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali were sprinkled throughout the city with the slogan, "Together We Meet Challenges," a slogan meant to tout his plan of development by focusing on job creation, increasing revenue and enhancing Tunisia's positioning and influence on the regional and international scales. This obviously has failed, leaving a country of over- educated youth, many of whom are unemployed or doing menial jobs. Mohammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for their revolution.
Today, millions of Arab youth are disenchanted with politics and live a dramatic rupture with the state. Restrictions on freedom of expression, though improving in several countries, dominate the mass media in the Arab world. Social media has in many instances opened the door for them not only to share ideas, but also to take action. We've seen a vivid example of this during the Jeddah floods when the Saudi government tried to suppress the news about the devastation caused by nature due to poor infrastructure in the Arab world's richest country, but the news quickly spread on Facebook and the internet by concerned young Saudis. We've witnessed a bread revolution in Egypt, also driven by high unemployment and poverty; again initially transmitted to the outside world by young bloggers before it became international headlines.
Throughout history, when social discontent can no longer be contained, people have taken to the street to demand change. Having the most rudimentary technology, or none at all have not prevented these movements, a case in point being hand printed pamphlets distributed prior to the French Revolution, Gandhi's ability to inspire and mobilize through the exponential power of word of mouth, and the leaflets and tape recordings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini speeches that were smuggled into the country prior to the Iranian Revolution.
Mohammed Bouazizi's self immolation was the expression not only of his despair, but that of youth throughout Tunisia ready to explode. Although they are an educated tech-savvy generation who were able to use social media as a tool, the underlying force was not a byproduct of this and the current situation would have come to pass with or without it.
Crediting social media with these revolutions however, trivializes them and does a disservice to the deep rooted issues that cause them.
As I was leaving Tunis on January 4, news spread again like wildfire of Mohammed Bouazizi's death at a hospital in the town of Ben Arous. Today, Mohsen Bouterfif died. Mohsen doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire on Thursday after a meeting with the mayor of the small city of Boukhadra who was unable to provide him with a job and housing. Boukhadra is in Algeria.
How does technology and the Internet express Oneness? I was watching clips from the upcoming ONENESS: The Big Picture (premiering on May 9th) and Deepak said "The Internet is the emergence of something so powerful but we have not realized it's impact."
This feels very true and I think the proper respect is due. If I write an email or a blog from my heart, it seems to have much more of an impact...people respond in kind. It is like the actual energy of my intention comes through my writing, or more like it, this web of light that connects us. This is Oneness, is it not?
I recently went to a conference called Wisdom 2.0 Summit where they were exploring how we use technology to connect in ways that are beneficial to our well-being and useful to the world. I have to say that having lived and worked in both fields -- technology and spirituality (is this a field?...not sure what to call it, but I do work here...) I was prepared not to be impressed with the level of consciousness there, but I am happy to report that I was wrong. There are people at Google, Twitter, Facebook, Mashable and Zappos that seem to have a deep connection to their responsibility to the whole. I almost cried I was so relieved. I mean if you look at the Huffington Post, they have added a religion section and are dedicating themselves to supplying the world with great wisdom teachers and this is a mainstream political publication! They recently posted a story called "The Internet as a Living Symbol of Global Oneness" by Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. In this article he said, "I believe that the Internet is a gift we have been given. It provides an image of how the energy of life can flow freely in a way that defies the barriers of nationality and geography. Yet sadly because we are so immersed in the surface activity of this technology, in its tools of commerce and communication, we do not realize its deeper, symbolic dimension. A symbol is a connection to the sacred ground of our being which alone gives real meaning to our daily life."
I would love to hear Deepak comment on this.... I would love to hear how he honors this connectedness in his communications with life and community. I hope to ask this question on Mother's Day, May 9th when we host a live chat with him. I am certain mothers care about this issue because it is part of a larger issue. How do we live a life that honors life....
Every year on March 22, people around the globe observe World Water Day in an effort to draw attention to the ongoing and critically important issue of access to clean water worldwide. This year the United Nations is dedicating World Water Day 2010 to the theme of Clean Water for a Healthy World. So true! Water and sanitation is at the root of all life, and should be a basic human right.
It has recently been determined that over one billion people on the planet do not have access to clean water, a travesty that leads to poor sanitation, disease, famine, and death. And not surprisingly, 98 percent of all water-related deaths occur in the developing world.
Our partners at YouthNoise have decided to do their part in calling attention to these staggering statistics by using Twitter to spread awareness and action ideas. Here's what you can do to help:
Thanks for your support!