Home' Technology Review : September October 2011 Contents Feature Story 73
Tak called SuX launched the first Arab-African social network,
SuXydelik. Zouhair Yahyaoui, an older Takrizard then in his 30s,
known online as “Ettounsi” (“The Tunisian”), started TuneZine, a
humorous political webzine and forum that inspired many, not
least with jokes such as this:
TuneZine is launching a competition for jokes, reserved
for young people, about Ben Ali and his party.
First prize: 13 years in prison.
Second prize: 20 years in prison.
Third prize: 26 years in prison.
TuneZine made Ettounsi famous in Tunisia; it also led to his
arrest and torture. He was sent to one of the worst prisons in the
country, according to his brother Chokri, with 120 people in one
room—“just one bathroom and hardly any water.” His sister Layla
recalls that when he became sick and asked to see a doctor, “they
beat him.” He went on several hunger strikes.
In 2003 the PEN American Center gave Ettounsi its Freedom
to Write Award, and Reporters Without Borders awarded him its
first Cyber-Freedom Prize. That year he was released, but in ter-
rible shape; he could barely walk. As Ben Ali prepared to host the
2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Ettounsi
went to Switzerland for the pre-summit, remarking, “Maybe when
I go back to Tunis I’ll be arrested again. It’s a risk, but I take it.”
A few months before WSIS, he died of a heart attack, aged 37. It
was a death hastened, in many eyes, by his treatment in prison.
At the summit, Ben Ali imposed a local curfew. Activists and jour-
nalists were attacked, websites blocked, speeches and documents
censored, and when a squad of plainclothes police turned up at a
Global Voices meeting on “expression under repression,” the irony
almost caused a diplomatic incident.
Even earlier, Takriz members had faced death threats and arrests.
They call the early 2000s the “manhunt years,” when many mem-
bers suspended their political activities as they forged new lives in
exile. But the persecution of Ettounsi radicalized other Tunisians,
like Riadh “Astrubal” Guerfali, a law professor in France. He made
a parody of the Apple Macintosh “1984” video, with Ben Ali as Big
Brother, and cofounded a collective blog, Nawaat, with a Tunisian
exile, Sami Ben Gharbia. Guerfali and Gharbia found innovative
ways to use technology: scouring plane-spotter sites for a video
exposé of the reviled first lady, Leila, using the presidential jet to
go shopping; “geo-bombing” the presidential palace by adding vid-
eos of human rights testimony that appear in the YouTube layer
of Google Earth and Google Maps; and charting Tunisia’s prisons.
Another innovation is Takriz’s strong relationship with soccer
fans. The mosque and the soccer pitch have been the only release
valves for anger and frustration among the young under auto-
cratic Middle Eastern rule, says James M. Dorsey, senior fellow
at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School
of International Studies, who writes a blog called The Turbulent
World of Middle East Soccer. “Soccer gets little attention,” he says,
“because soccer fans don’t bomb World Trade Centers.” They fight
local battles instead, often against the police.
The inspiration for turning that spirit to political ends came
after several Taks, including Foetus and SuX, were at a 1999 Tuni-
sian cup match that erupted in violence. Scores were injured and
several died. Ben Ali was appalled, but exiled Taks soon saw an
advantage in working with Ultras, as the most extreme fans of soc-
cer clubs are known. Over several seasons, SuX, who had a particu-
lar rapport with the fans on the terraces, developed a Web forum
for Ultras from different teams, hosted by Takriz. A distinctive
North African style of Ultra—one with more political character—
spread quickly among Tunisia’s soccer-mad youth and then to fans
in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco. When the revolution began,
the Ultras would come out to play a very different game. They were
transformed into a quick-reaction force of bloody-minded rioters.
In 2008, protests focusing on corruption and working conditions
broke out in Tunisia’s mining region, near the town of Gafsa. Six
months of sporadic demonstrations peaked when security forces
opened fire, killing one and injuring 26. There were hundreds of
arrests. The unrest remained local, though, in large part because
security forces cut the area off. Foetus admits it was “hard to build
on these events” because “the technology wasn’t in place”: few
Tunisians had camera phones or Facebook accounts. But Takriz
sent members south, hoping to build networks on the ground by
strengthening relationships with local union and youth activists.
Egypt, too, saw industrial protests in 2008, in this case in the
city of Mahalla in the Nile Delta. Textile workers there planned a
“We didn’t think about Facebook in the beginning because [to us]
it was very new,” says an Egyptian organizer. Instead they relied
on leaflets, blogs, and Internet forums. When they did set up a
Facebook page, they were amazed to see 3,000 new fans a day.
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