From Tahrir Square to Ferguson

Social Networks as Facilitators of Social Movements

by Juliet Dee (Volume editor)
©2018 Monographs XIV, 442 Pages
Series: Communication Law, Volume 5


The last several years have seen mass uprisings and dynamic social movements across the globe, from the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, to the Black Lives Matter movement following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. There is no doubt that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter accelerated and facilitated these uprisings, providing a way for people to organize and express themselves despite government repression.
From Tahrir Square to Ferguson: Social Networks as Facilitators of Social Movements attempts to answer the question of whether these movements could have succeeded before the advent of the Internet age. From political protest to regime change, social movements have become increasingly digital. Taking on the current political climate from an international perspective, From Tahrir Square to Ferguson: Social Networks as Facilitators of Social Movements attempts to address the issues of a growing social media audience facing a wide variety of social and political issues.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Illustrations
  • Introduction (Juliet Dee)
  • Regime Change or Status Quo?
  • The Middle East and the Arab Spring
  • Political Protests in North America
  • Political Protests in Europe
  • Political Protests in Asia
  • Part One: Middle East
  • Chapter 1: The Tunisian Revolution: A Social Movement of Courage Assisted by Social Media (Douglas Fraleigh)
  • Abstract
  • Repression of Expression by the Ben Ali Regime
  • Control of All Institutions of Government
  • Policies and Practices to Control Expression
  • Social Media in the Tunisian Revolution
  • Government Actions to Limit Social Media during the Revolution
  • The Effects of Social Media
  • Publicizing Grievances Against the Ben Ali Regime
  • Planning and Coordinating Demonstrations
  • Persuading and Achieving Social Influence
  • Important Caveat: A Tunisian Revolution Rather Than a Twitter Revolution
  • Freedom of Expression in Post-Revolution Tunisia
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter 2: From Tahrir Square to Facebook and Vice Versa: The Public Sphere, Cyber-Space and the Reach of Post-Revolution in Egypt (Luciana Garcia de Oliveira / Matheus Cardoso-da-Silva)
  • Introduction
  • The Internet and the Arab Spring: Does the Internet Create Revolutions?
  • The Legal Uncertainty of the Guarantees of Freedom of Expression in Egyptian Cyber-Space during the Transition
  • The Rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood
  • Virtual Militancy against Mohammed Morsi’s Government: Information Warfare in Egyptian Cyberspace
  • The Fall of Morsi and the Rise of a New Military Dictatorship in Egypt
  • Conflicts in Egypt from 2011 to 2014
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3: Social Media and The 2014 Hostilities in Iraq (Ahmed al-Rawi)
  • Legal Background
  • Nouri al-Maliki’s Response to Protesters in 2011
  • Social Media Use in Iraq
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Iraqi Media Laws and the State’s Sectarian Policy
  • Political Activism and Social Media Use
  • The Communication and Media Commission (CMC) and al-Maliki’s Government
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Social Networks, Social Movements and The Politico-Cultural Situation of Pakistani Media (Rauf Arif)
  • Introduction
  • Social Movements in Pakistan
  • The Politico-Cultural and Legal Situation of Pakistani Media
  • Constitutional Framework of Free Speech in Pakistan
  • Anti-Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan
  • The Emergence of Social Media in Pakistan
  • Laws that Regulate the Internet in Pakistan
  • Women and Social Networks in Pakistan
  • Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (2016)
  • An Interim Prime Minister in 2017
  • Discussion and Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 5: Between Cyber-Activism and Mobilization: The February 20 Movement in Morocco (Abdelfettah Benchenna / Zineb Majdouli)
  • A Social Malaise
  • The Commercialization of Health and Education
  • Graduate Unemployment
  • An Administration Riddled with Corruption
  • Social Disparities
  • A Discredited Political Class
  • The Internet: A Method of Mobilization?
  • Legal Vacuum in Digital Communication
  • Cultural Renewal
  • The Formation of a Blogosphere
  • The Internet: A Mirror of the Movement
  • Mobilization via Social Media?
  • Difficulties within the February 20 Movement
  • The Authorities’ Exploitation of the Situation
  • The Legal Implications of the February 20 Movement
  • The Consequences of the Government’s Actions against the February 20 Movement
  • The Media, the Intellectuals and a People “Not Ready for Change”
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 6: Laughing with Tear Gas in Our Eyes: Use of Satirical Humor in the Gezi Park Social Movement in Turkey (Christine Ogan / Yeşim Kaptan)
  • Laws and Other Freedom of Expression Restrictions in Turkey
  • Political Humor and Satire
  • Puppet Theatre from the Time of the Ottoman Empire to the Republic
  • Political Satire and the Cartoon
  • The Erdoğan Era
  • The Satirical Influence in Gezi
  • Theories of Humor and Humor in Social Movements
  • Gezi Park Humor and Satire
  • Internally Focused Humor
  • Graffiti: Internally Focused and Expressive in Nature
  • Humor is Not Enough
  • An Attempted Coup in 2016
  • A State of Emergency in Turkey
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 7: The Syrian Rebellion and the “First Social Media” War (Marouf Hasian Jr. / Sean Lawson)
  • Introduction
  • A New Media Law
  • Rebels’ Use of Social Media in the Media Battles against Bashar al-Assad’s Regime
  • Government and Pro-Government Use (and Abuse) of Social Media
  • Responses to Pro-Regime Social Media Tactics
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Two: North America
  • Chapter 8: How to Interpret the Occupy Wall Street Social Movement in the Context of the Digital Revolution (Victoria Carty)
  • Social Movement Theory and Theories of New Technology: Contextualizing the Occupy Wall Street Struggle
  • The Emergence of Occupy Wall Street
  • Social Media Fuels the Flames: 2.0 Tactics
  • The Agenda Diversifies
  • Occupy Oakland
  • Implications for Free Speech and Impact of Protest Activity on Public Opinion
  • References
  • Chapter 9: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: The American Civil Rights Movement Goes Online (Ginger M. Loggins / W. Russell Robinson)
  • The Michael Brown Case
  • The Lens of Critical Race Theory
  • Historical Context
  • First Amendment Precedent
  • The Kerner Commission
  • The Journey to Modern Racial Discourse
  • Protest and Social Media
  • The Current Research
  • Instagram: A New Tool for Social Activism
  • The St. Louis American: The Black Press
  • KMOV: The Law and Order News Frame
  • First Amendment Rights versus Private Corporations
  • Discussion
  • Postscript: Continuing Protests
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 10: “We are More Than 131”: The Mexico Student Movement for Free Speech and Political Freedom (Jenn Mackay)
  • Free Speech and Assembly
  • Political Climate of Mexico
  • Enrique Peña Nieto
  • Presidential Campaign of 2012
  • Television Concentration
  • Yo Soy 132
  • The First Protest
  • #Yosoy132
  • The General Assembly
  • The Yo Soy 132 Debate
  • The Music of Yo Soy 132
  • Presidential Election 2012
  • After The Election
  • References
  • Part Three: Europe
  • Chapter 11: The 5 Star Movement and the Promise of eDemocracy in Italy (Lorenzo Dalvit / Cosimo Marco Scarcelli)
  • Introduction
  • Legal Framework
  • Democratic Participation
  • Representative Democracy
  • Media Freedom
  • History and Composition of the M5S
  • History of the Movement
  • Novelty and Ambiguity
  • The M5S and the Media
  • Relationship with Traditional Media
  • The M5S’ Digital Ecosystem
  • A Three-Step Strategy
  • Reflections on the M5S Experience and Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 12: The Catalan Case: Building a New State from Social Outrage and New Media (Marc Perelló-Sobrepere)
  • Introduction
  • Historical Background and Contemporary Approach
  • Massive Rallies: Turning Outrage into Hope
  • Expressing Outrage via Twitter
  • The Participative Process of November 9, 2014
  • Building a New State Using New Media
  • Catalonia: New State in Europe?
  • Setback for the Right of Freedom of Speech
  • The “Gag Law”
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 13: Spain: “The Outraged” (Leocadia Díaz Romero)
  • Indignation around the World … and in Spain
  • Demands, Proposals and the Protesters: Consequences for Spanish Politics
  • 15M’s Decision-Making Processes
  • A Movement of Hybrid Nature: Between Virtual and Physical Space
  • Restrictions on Civil Liberties and Fundamental Rights during Demonstrations
  • Laws Governing Freedom of Assembly in Spain
  • Monitoring of Citizens’ Personal Data
  • Freedom of Speech and the Use of Social Media
  • Subsequent Legal Initiatives in Spain: The “Gag Law” and the Criminal Code
  • Why Has the “Gag Law” Become So Controversial?
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 14: France Hits the Boulevards: Je Suis Charlie Marches #MarcheRepublicaine (Susan J. Drucker / Gary Gumpert)
  • The Legal Context: Public Assembly
  • Social Media
  • The Media of the Assassins Also Spoke
  • The Role of Social Networks in Facilitating the March
  • The Legal Context: Social Media
  • Social Media Law Developments: Responses
  • Conclusions
  • Aftermath
  • References
  • Chapter 15: A Train Station Divides a Country: The Use of Social Media by Activists during the “Stuttgart 21” Controversy in Germany (André Haller)
  • Introduction
  • Short History of “S21”
  • Political Impact
  • The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany
  • Freedom of Speech and Assembly in Germany
  • Freedom of Speech in Germany
  • Freedom of Assembly and the Right to Demonstrate
  • Evaluation of the Current Situation of Civil Rights in Germany
  • Social Media as Communicative Instruments in the “S21” Protests
  • Use of Twitter: A Study by Jungherr & Jürgens
  • Use of Facebook: A Study Based on the Concepts of Jungherr and Jürgens
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 16: The Online Element in Intermedia Agenda-Setting: The Case of the Greek Indignant Citizens Movement (Vassilis Vamvakas / Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou)
  • Introduction
  • Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly
  • Conceptual Background: The Role of Social Media in Social Movements
  • Contributing with an Innovative Approach
  • The Indignants: A Facebook Movement
  • The Indignant Citizens Movement in the Newspapers and Blogosphere
  • Three Basic Frames of Representation
  • Framing the Representations in the Press and the Blogosphere
  • Visual Representations
  • Conclusions
  • Appendix I
  • Appendix II
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Four: Asia
  • Chapter 17: The Delhi Rape Case: The Role of Social Media in Protests and Policy Change (Bidu Bhusan Dash / K. M. Baharul Islam)
  • Introduction
  • Constitutional Law: Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly
  • Role of Social Networks in Protest Movements
  • December 16, 2012: Saket, New Delhi
  • December 29, 2012: Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore
  • January 15, 2013: India Gate, New Delhi
  • Public Protests
  • Protests at the International Level
  • Media Protests
  • Prayers, Police and Politics
  • Revisiting Constitutional Provisions
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 18: Using Cell Phones to Organize Political Protests in China (Jun Liu)
  • Introduction
  • Legal Status of Freedom of Speech and Assembly in China
  • Using Mobile Phones to Organize Demonstrations
  • Mobile Phones, Protest Mobilization, and Guanxi as a Social Tie: A Research Agenda
  • Social Ties and Protest Mobilization
  • Mobile Phones, Guanxi, and Protest Mobilization in China
  • Methods
  • Mobile Communication and Protest Mobilization in China: Cases
  • Findings and Discussion: Mobilizing Guanxi for Protests
  • Mobile Communication in Popular Protests
  • Guanxi-Mediated Mobile Communication and Protest Mobilization
  • The Emergence of “Mobile-Phone-Mediated, Social Ties-Based Mass Self-Mobilization”
  • Conclusion: Embedding Social Ties for Mobilization
  • From Digital Media to “Means of Mundane Mobilization”
  • Acknowledgements
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 19: Networked Flows of Information in Myanmar’s Pro-Democracy Movement (Melanie Radue)
  • Introduction
  • Myanmar’s Bumpy Road to Media Freedom: The Media Landscape and Its Regulations
  • Networked Flows of Information: Loopholes for Dissidents
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 20: Activism in the Public Cyber-Sphere: Shahbag Square, Bangladesh (Leslie J. Reynard)
  • Introduction
  • Shahbag Square and Social Media
  • Democratic Rights with “Certain Restrictions” on the Press
  • Government Initiatives for Virtual Bangladesh
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021
  • Free Expression, Activism, and the Internet in Bangladesh
  • “A Vision for Youth”
  • The Public Cyber-Sphere
  • Limiting Free Expression
  • Limits to Internet Freedom in Bangladesh
  • Bangladeshi Political Coalitions and the Shahbag Movement
  • Data Mining the Shahbag Movement
  • After Shahbag Square
  • Conclusions and Prospects
  • Note
  • References
  • Series index

| ix →


Chapter 12

Table 12.1. Independence support and social network usage comparison. Sources: *GESOP, 2011, 2013. **Telefonica, 2014. ***CEO, 2011–2014.

Chapter 15

Figure 15.1. Systematization of the rights in Article 5 (Fechner, 2012, 20).

Table 15.1. Most frequently visited Facebook pages concerning “Stuttgart 21” (Azionare, 2010 and author’s own research).

Table 15.2. Analysis of the two postings on the two most frequently visited Facebook pages based on the theoretical assumptions of Jungherr & Jürgens (2014).

Table 15.3. Analysis of the hyperlinks in the two most frequently visited Facebook pages based on the theoretical assumptions of Jungherr & Jürgens (2014).← ix | x →

Chapter 16

Appendix I

Graph 16.1. The basic frames of representation.

Graph 16.2. Representations of political meaning.

Graph 16.3. Representations of violence.

Graph 16.4. Representations of emotions.

Graph 16.5. Positive emotional representations.

Graph 16.6. Subjects of photos on the front pages.

Graph 16.7. Subjects of demonstrations photographed.

Appendix II

Table 16.1. The most influential Greek blogs.

Table 16.2. Titles of awakening (sample).

Table 16.3. Déjà vu titles (sample).

Table 16.4. New political subject (sample).

Table 16.5. Anti-government stance (sample).

Table 16.6. Against parliament-democracy (sample).

Table 16.7. Violence of élites (sample).

Table 16.8. Demonstrators as agents of violence (criticism).

Table 16.9. Demonstrators as agents of violence (positive).

Table 16.10. Emotion-negative.

Table 16.11. Emotion-positive romanticism.

Table 16.12. Emotion-new attitudes.

Table 16.13. Slogans.

Chapter 17

Figure 17.1. Number of “Likes” for Facebook pages in support of “Damini.”

Figure 17.2. Facebook Page Announcing Time and Place for Protesters to Gather.

Chapter 20

Table 20.1. Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh. Source: Freedom House, 2014c.

| xi →


Juliet Dee

University of Delaware

Regime Change or Status Quo?

It is our hope that the political protests we cover in this book provide an effective representation of how citizens are using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in the most technologically advanced countries such as the United States, and also in the least technologically advanced countries such as Bangladesh.

Political protests resulted in regime change in only a few of the countries discussed here. In Tunisia President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in 2011; after adopting a new Constitution, the Tunisian people elected Prime Minister Habib Essid in February 2015. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak and (later) Mohamed Morsi were ousted, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected President in June 2015. In Greece the “indignant citizens movement” may have influenced the election in which the Radical Left (Syriza) Party’s candidate Alexis Tsipras defeated the more conservative Antonis Samaras in 2015. And in Myanmar, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, won 85% of the seats in Parliament in November 2015. Former military commander U Thein Sein was President of ← xi | xii → Myanmar at that time, but in March 2016 Htin Kyaw of the National League for Democracy became President.

In stark contrast to the changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece and Myanmar, however, the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Syria after non-violent street protests turned into a civil war, spawning the Islamic State and driving a million refugees to flee to Europe to escape the bloodshed.

The Middle East and the Arab Spring

Any collection of historical essays on the Arab Spring and later political protests throughout the world would need to begin with Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia. Doug Fraleigh’s chapter on the protests that followed covers the role of social media in the Tunisian or “Twitter” Revolution. From Tunisia, the Arab Spring spread to Egypt; Luciana Garcia de Oliveira and Matheus Cardoso-da-Silva examine the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, first against Hosni Mubarak and later against Mohammed Morsi before Morsi was deposed and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi assumed power. The Arab Spring later spread to Iraq. Ahmed al-Rawi considers the actions of thousands of protesters angry with the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki before al-Maliki stepped down and Haider al-Abadi became the next leader of Iraq. Ahmed al-Rawi also discusses the Kurdish vote for independence in September 2017, and the Iraqi government’s immediate military action to take back control of territory that had been part of the Kurdish autonomous region. Rauf Arif explains that although protesters did not bring about the downfall of the Pakistani government, the “lawyers’ movement” and the Azadi march (freedom march) in Pakistan provided powerful examples of how protesters could use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to convey their message. Abdelfettah Benchenna and Zineb Majdouli provide an account of the February 20 movement in Morocco; although King Mohammed VI maintained his power, he permitted certain Constitutional reforms in response to the February 20 protesters. Christine Ogan and Yesim Kaptan examine how demonstrators in Turkey used political satire in response to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s heavy-handed treatment of them. And Marouf Hasian and Sean Lawson cover the 2011 street protests of the Syrian people before Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on anyone who criticized his regime.← xii | xiii →

Political Protests in North America

Whereas Middle Eastern protesters during the Arab Spring focused on political reforms, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States focused on effecting economic reforms. Victoria Carty examines how Occupy Wall Street protesters used social networks to organize their demonstrations. Ginger Loggins and Russell Robinson analyze Black Twitter and the Black Lives Matter movement that began when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. Jenn Mackay weighs the effects of the “Yo Soy 131” movement, later called the Mexican Spring, among college students in Mexico.

Political Protests in Europe

As in the United States and Mexico, political protests in Europe have focused less on effecting “regime change” and more on effecting reforms within the system. Lorenzo Dalvit and Cosimo Marco Scarcelli examine the 5 Star Movement, a populist political party in Italy calling for the right to Internet access, among other demands. Marc Perello-Sobrepere investigates Catalan’s attempt to gain independence from Spain, and Leacadia Diaz-Romero discusses the “indignados” (M-15) movement which is attempting to transform politics within Spain itself. Susan Drucker and Gary Gumpert examine the “Je Suis Charlie” demonstrations in Paris in January 2015 in which French citizens spoke out for free speech and (ironically) governments such as Turkey and China used the terrorist attacks as an excuse to tighten controls on freedom of expression in their own countries. Andre Haller analyzes the “Stuttgart 21” movement in Germany, in which protesters tried to stop the construction of an underground train station for environmental reasons. And Vassilis Vamvakas and Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou examine the “indignant citizens” movement in Greece, which no doubt played a role in the 2015 defeat of the conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and the election of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) Party’s Alexis Tsipras as Prime Minister.

Political Protests in Asia

Baharul Islam and Bidu Dash review the effects of the social protests in India following the gang rape and murder of a young Indian woman in 2012, and ← xiii | xiv → Jun Liu provides an account of how people in China have used cell phones to organize protests against industrial polluters, for example. Melanie Radue examines how supporters of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi used Facebook and other social networks to bring about regime change in Myanmar. Although human rights activists at first had high hopes for Myanmar after Aung San Suu Kyi became the de facto leader of its civil government, no one anticipated the atrocities that Myanmar’s military would commit against the Rohingya people, forcing more than 500,000 of them to flee to Bangladesh in 2017. Finally, Leslie Reynard explores how protesters have used social networks in response to the brutal murder of atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider and others in Bangladesh.

| 1 →



| 3 →

· 1 ·


A Social Movement of Courage Assisted by Social Media

Douglas Fraleigh

California State University, Fresno


When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 to protest abusive treatment at the hands of the Tunisian government, it inspired a revolution. Increasing numbers of Tunisians took to the streets to protest against the repressive Ben Ali regime, causing the president to flee on January 14, 2011. Because many activists used social media, the Tunisian Revolution has sometimes been called a “Twitter” revolution. This paper analyzes the role of social media in the Tunisian Revolution. It concludes that the courage of the Tunisian people was paramount in achieving change, but that social media did assist the revolution by publicizing grievances, facilitating the planning and coordination of protests, and persuading a growing number of Tunisians to participate.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who supported his family by selling fruits and vegetables in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, immolated himself on December 17, 2010 in front of the provincial headquarters. Bouazizi had been a frequent target of demands for bribes from local officials, and he took this drastic step after an inspector confiscated the scales he needed to run his business and municipal authorities would not listen to his grievances. ← 3 | 4 →

Bouazizi’s dramatic and tragic protest inspired spontaneous demonstrations against the government in Sidi Bouzid. The protests soon spread from central Tunisia to other cities, reaching the capital city of Tunis on December 27. Tunisia’s authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, delivered a series of speeches in response. Attempts to intimidate the protesters with threats of reprisal neither failed to stop the demonstrations, nor did the claim that the protesters were terrorists, nor a promise of 300,000 new jobs. A presidential visit to Bouazizi’s hospital bed before he died had little impact. On January 13, Ben Ali promised that he had “heard” and “understood” the demonstrators and would not seek a sixth presidential term in the 2014 elections. Nevertheless, the protesters’ shouts of “Ben Ali, degage!” (“Get out!”) grew louder and after the “largest antigovernment demonstration” in the history of Tunis, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia (Schraeder & Redissi, 2011).

Mohamed Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to protest government oppression. In response to similar government abuse, street vendor Abdesslem Trimech had set himself on fire in the coastal city of Monastir in March 2010 (Ryan, 2011b, January 26). In 2008, there had been months of protest in the phosphate mining city of Gafsa in response to corrupt practices in hiring workers for the mines (Gall, 2014b, May 13). One difference between the demonstrations sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi and earlier protests was the communication on social media which followed. Ali Bouazizi, a relative of Mohamed Bouazizi, used his cell phone to record the self-immolation and the protest which followed. That evening, he posted the recording and several photographs on Facebook (Lim, 2013). Throughout the revolution, Tunisians were able to use social media to share images and stories about government abuses and to publicize and coordinate strategies for protest (Howard & Hussain, 2011).

Because of the widespread use of social media during the revolution in Tunisia, the revolution has sometimes been referred to as a “Twitter Revolution” (Esseghaier, 2013). But other commentators have contended that social media is not an effective tool for activism; for example, they argue that virtual networks lack the immediacy and leadership necessary to build a cohesive and motivated movement (Joseph, 2012). This chapter will analyze the efficacy of social media in the context of the Tunisian revolution. It will begin with an analysis of how freedom of expression was constrained in Tunisia by the Ben Ali regime and then we consider the role of social media in circumventing these constraints and assisting the Tunisian people in a revolution of dignity. ← 4 | 5 →

Repression of Expression by the Ben Ali Regime

Evaluations of the Ben Ali government’s free expression policies were highly negative. The human rights advocacy organization Freedom House ranks nations’ political rights and civil liberties on a scale from 2 (most free) to 14 (least free). In the early years of Ben Ali’s presidency, Tunisia’s rating improved from 11 to 8. However, this assessment moved back to 11 in 1994 and was typically 12 (not free) in the later years of Ben Ali’s rule (Schraeder & Redissi, 2011). Ben Ali was a regular on the Committee to Protect Journalists “Top Ten Enemies of the Press” list (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2001) and Tunisia made a 2009 list of the “Ten Worst Countries to be a Blogger” (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2009). A secret 2009 cable by U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec, published by Wikileaks, classified Tunisia as “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems” (Godec, 2009). Ben Ali was able to severely repress expression though his domination of all the machinery of government and through specific policies and practices to censor or sanction any critical or independent messages.

Control of All Institutions of Government

Ben Ali was only the second president in Tunisian history, ascending from the post of prime minister in 1987 after issuing a declaration that the increasingly authoritarian President Habib Bourguiba was not mentally fit to govern. He won elections to the presidency five times, twice facing no opposition and winning by overwhelming margins in the other campaigns (BBC News, 2011).

It was anticipated that Ben Ali would transition Tunisia into a more democratic and pluralistic society, and early in the regime, some improvements were made. But over time, his regime methodically took control of any institution that could offer a check on its power, including “parliament, the judiciary, the press, political parties, universities, and professional associations” (Breuer & Groshek, 2014). For example, Ben Ali revised the electoral laws so that the party obtaining a simple majority in parliamentary elections would receive 75% of the seats. Presidential candidates could only come from political parties that the government had authorized. And the Constitution was amended in 2002 to create a bicameral legislature, establishing an upper house called the Chamber of Councillors. By rule, most of its members were ← 5 | 6 → selected by the president and the ruling party (Rand, 2013). Leaders of opposing parties were arrested without cause, inhibiting their will and ability to function as a meaningful alternative to the Ben Ali government (Breuer & Groshek, 2014). The experience of the October 18 Movement is illustrative. This social movement consisted of a diverse coalition of Islamists, members of secular opposition parties, and human rights organizations that came together in 2005, agreeing on a platform that called for freedom of organization for all political parties, freedom of expression, and amnesty for political prisoners. Ben Ali was so concerned about this movement that he prohibited it and classified the leaders as fugitives (Angrist, 2013).

The judicial branch was also under Ben Ali’s influence. The justice system was used as a tool for prosecuting members of opposition parties, along with labor leaders, reporters, students, and human rights advocates. Judges who failed to follow orders could be denied promotions and find themselves transferred to jurisdictions away from their homes (Aleya-Sghaier, 2012). The regime replaced members of the Association of Tunisian Judges board when they seemed to be too autonomous (Angrist, 2013).

The regime attempted to keep the Tunisian people in line with an oversized collection of security forces. There were about 130,000 total members, including the Presidential Guard, the National Guard, and separate police forces for political matters, tourism, and universities. The size of these forces was comparable to that of France, although that nation is six times more populous (Schraeder & Redissi, 2011). These agencies routinely used violence as a means to quell protests and demonstrations. Security forces would also spy on suspected regime opponents, joined by civilian members of the ruling Rassemblement-Constitutionnel-Democratique (RCD) Party’s “neighborhood committees” (Aleya-Sghaier, 2012). Journalist Kerim Bouzouita characterized the Tunisian public sphere as “a pool swarming with sharks” (Khatib & Lust, 2014).

A primary function of the Ben Ali regime seemed to be promoting the economic success of the president’s extended family of about 140 people. The families of Ben Ali and his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, owned more than 180 sizeable businesses. Ms. Trabelsi was particularly despised, earning the nickname “regent of Carthage” for her increasing efforts to influence the government (Schraeder & Redissi, 2011). According to a classified report by Ambassador William Hudson, published by Wikileaks, the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families “established important control in major business sectors, the media, and in the politically significant sports world” (Hudson, 2006). Another secret cable written by Ambassador Robert Godec revealed that the presidential family was regularly referred to as a “quasi-mafia,” with Belhassen ← 6 | 7 → Trabelsi (Leila’s brother) particularly renowned for corrupt practices. Having the right connections was important for obtaining employment or a college scholarship (Godec, 2008).

Policies and Practices to Control Expression

The Tunisian constitution provided that “liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly, and association are guaranteed and exercised within the conditions defined by the law” (Miladi, 2011). This paper guarantee provided little protection of free expression in practice.

The press was controlled through a variety of mechanisms. For example, print media entities were required to register with the Interior Ministry and independent media outlets were unlikely to be approved. The Tunisian press code prohibited “offending the president, disturbing order, and publishing what the government perceives as false news” (Campagna, 2008). Reporters regularly were subjected to arrest and incarceration (Open Net Initiative, 2009) and many practiced self-censorship to avoid provoking the government’s wrath (Breuer & Groshek, 2014). The prosecution of journalist Salim Boukhdeir provides an example of how the government responded to criticism. When the writer accused the Ben Ali family of nepotism, he lost his job at the Akhbar al-Jumhuriyya newspaper and was denied a passport. After criticizing the business dealings of a Ben Ali in-law, he was attacked by secret police. Nevertheless, he continued to write until the day the police stopped him while he was riding in a taxicab. He was accused of being an agent for the United States, tried for insulting the police, and sentenced to a year in jail (Campagna, 2008).


XIV, 442
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 442 pp., 10 b/w iils., 18 tables

Biographical notes

Juliet Dee (Volume editor)

Juliet Dee is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, her Master’s degree from Northwestern University, and her doctorate from Temple University, and is a co-author of Mass Communication Law in a Nutshell (2014).


Title: From Tahrir Square to Ferguson
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
458 pages