A remarkable event happened last week. After 23 years of ruling Tunisia with an iron fist, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia. It was the dramatic culmination to a month of street protests across the North African nation.
The fuse was lit when an unemployed university graduate doused himself with gasoline, lighting himself on fire. Fueled by anger over growing unemployment (one-third of college graduates have no work) and rampant corruption, Tunisians took to the streets, confronting the repressive regime.
It's no state secret that the government is corrupt.Â Relatives of the president and his wife have reaped vast fortunes and live in opulence. But documents revealed by Wikileaks added evidence to the simmering outrage.
Remember the secret U.S. diplomatic cables released late last year? Here's one from 2008 written by an American diplomat in Tunis: â€œCorruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether itâ€™s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Aliâ€™s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.â€
And there's more: “The numerous stories of familial corruption are certainly galling to many Tunisians, but beyond the rumors of money-grabbing is a frustration that the well-connected can live outside the law. One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was no longer a police state, it had become a state run by the mafia. ”
You can read the dirty details on Tunileaks, a site created by dissidents to expose state corruption. Although the government tried to take down the site, the juicy details have already circulated widely in the Arab world.
Tunisia, a former French colony, has a large middle class and an educated, technology savvy population. Since the protests began, organizers have used Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and blogs to spread the word.
The government applied itsÂ formidable censorship apparatus to block these channels with limited success. The key to the regime's longevity was its ability to suppress information. Those days are over. The new interim government has pledged to dismantled state control of the media.
While it's tempting to credit the Internet for the overthrow of the government, as one writer tweeted, “The Internet facilitates communication, but it alone doesn't keep people in the streets for four weeks.” The courage of the Tunisian people deserves full credit.
As word of the uprising spreads, fear has rippled across the Arab world. Which dictator will be next? Protests have now erupted in Egypt, ruled by another iron-fisted despot. The revolution will not be televised; it will be tweeted.