“A tool to develop oppositional ideas, and not to be afraid”

A conversation with the cyber activist Sofiane Belhaj (Hamadi Kaloutcha) about the role of the Internet in the Tunisian revolution

Tunis, 23 November 2011

Talking to bloggers from Tunis has become a rather popular activity for politicians, curators etc.…

Yes, we have become a classic. I have met prime ministers, ministers, even Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General – twice already. There seems to be a need to come to Tunis and to present yourself with symbolic figures from the revolution. Our worry is that all this is useless, that it doesn’t change anything… Too often our meetings are just photo opportunities. That’s why most of us don’t really want to talk to politicians or foreign journalists anymore.
But we need to communicate, we have to spread information that can be helpful and that can inspire people by the Tunisian battle. Even if it is frustrating to get misquoted and being used for arguments, that are not your own. I once told a French journalist that I don’t follow any religion but that I respect it. He made out of me a convinced secular. No! I am not fighting for secularity. I don’t think that secularism is crucial for the survival of the Tunisian democracy.

The grounds for Internet activism in Tunisia had been prepared already a few years before for the actual revolution. It did not just appear out of nowhere…

It even started already around 1995 in forums etc. after a campaign by the Tunisian government promoting the new technology. Ben Ali was fanatic about everything that had to do with technology. Some say he was an enemy of the internet but in fact he was an enemy of free expression, and not the Internet.
For us it soon became the only space where we could express ourselves. We used it as a tool to develop oppositional ideas, and not to be afraid. You have to realize: When we spoke about politics, we whispered. Even a couple in bed, in complete intimacy – when they spoke about politics, they whispered!
Our aim was to create a debate to go against this taboo –politics was a taboo–, to pose questions, to demystify politics. Facebook started in Tunisia in 2007 – by the end of 2008 we were already more than 1.5 million users. Now we are 3 million – of a population of 10 million. Egypt had much less Internet users, but they were encouraged by the Tunisian revolution.

How was the internet used as a tool against fear?

In 2008, there was the rebellion in Gafsa/Redeyef, a region in the South of Tunisia, which was crushed by the government. A journalist had filmed the events with a standard camera. We took these images and circulated them via Facebook. In the beginning this was not easy, because people did not share the videos out of fear to be put in prison. So it was up to us cyber dissidents to invade this tool and express oppositional opinions. We stepped over the red line that had kept people from participating – and with this the line became more and more transparent. People slowly started to use Facebook, to participate in the critique of the government, to express dissent. All this was happening already when the in late 2010 the events in Tunis happened. It was not a spontaneous reaction. Without the slow development beforehand the people would have never dared to do this. The change that took place was also a result of demystifying the dangers of the web and of the possible threats posed by Ben Ali. People took little steps towards an unknown terrain, and stopped having fear. And shortly after the print media took over the provocations toward the government.

So what was the connection between the offline and the online revolution? A lot of people did not use the internet at all and still pushed for the revolution.

In this case, we don’t deserve the laurels. The web world helped the real world in its struggle, but the web world didn’t start the revolution. It contributed to the breeding ground and accompanied it by giving it a certain strength. This revolution couldn’t have existed on a purely technological level, but it was way to spread the information: Where did we learn about the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself? In the web, on Facebook. Where did we learn about what happened at his funeral? In the web. Where did we read about the reaction of the police? In the web. There were people who filmed and who understood the impact of the image, who understood where to post it to receive maximum exposure. In this regard, we facilitated the movement. The proof are the events of 2008 in Gafsa. They were not accompanied by the web and were crushed and oppressed in silence.

Many people overcame their fear in the net – but still there was very real danger – people were arrested, tortured. What was the government’s strategy: Why did they arrest certain people and others not?

There is the story of Zouheir Yahyaoui, who was the first cyber-dissident to be pursued and condemned in Tunisia, when the country was at the top of lists of internet policing. He founded and edited one of the first open discussion forums on the internet the satirical website Tunezine. It gathered people across the political spectrum discussing women’s issues, human rights, economic problems, freedom of expression or religion. Yahyaoui got arrested in 2002 for creating the site and was sentenced to two years in prison. [He died of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 37 and became a symbol for the internet dissent.] He was one of the first to use this tool effectively. The internet had become a real threat to the government – and I was determined to continue what he had begun.
Later when we were imprisoned ourselves in the Ministry of the Internal Affairs, we were not treated like the others. They knew what it meant to arrest a blogger: We didn’t miss an occasion to remind them of the death of Zouheir Yahyaoui. It remained a thorn in the foot of the regime. Sometimes he is considered a prophet in the whole fight, a symbol of the suffering.

The arrests were selective – how and why did you get into prison?

When I look at the arrests of all of us on January 6th 2011 it is clear that they were very calculating. Everyone of us who got arrested, represented a different key positions in the Internet resistance. They picked me because I was considered the leader of the influential Facebook group. But there are no leaders or moderators on Facebook, so I confronted them with this argument. They said that I was one of agitators.
By arresting one of each group, they wanted to stop and intimidate all the others within these groups. And indeed there was panic. Before even our families knew about our arrests, there was the announcement of it on Facebook. It was the ministry itself who announced it on Facebook!

So they were in the game, too!

Yes, completely. Some of my “friends” on Facebook were agents of the Ministry for Internal Affairs. Ben Ali’s dictatorship was a technocratic regime – they had the competence to censor and to infiltrate. By arresting us they wanted to scare people and stop them from sharing their views online. But they miscalculated. It stimulated people even more. Even those who initially weren’t involved now joined the discussions.

Usually administrations rather have problems keeping up with technical developments.

It was not the administration, it’s the police: If you let the police anywhere in the world do whatever they please, they will install microphones wherever they can. In Tunisia they didn’t need papers for anything. So the regime had their pirates, their engineers and best technicians working for them. The cyber war between the regime and the cyber dissent was like a game of chess. It was a war between one intelligence against the other. Our advantage was that we defended something defendable and they didn’t.

How did Facebook become the perfect tool to mobilize the people?

First it was just used for information – to maintain contacts as well, but mainly to follow what was going on. The public media were censored, and outside of the internet most people didn’t dare to criticize the regime, but in a private sphere they did more and more. And since people use their computers generally in a more private context, at home, on the table, even in bed, they feel like they can be more themselves. The discussions that happened on Facebook would not have happened on the street. Nobody can listen to a chat. So people talked about things they otherwise would never mention. And slowly that broke the barriers also towards the other means of the internet like Facebook. Social media is world media, and it can serve during the revolution.

The internet took over the role of newspapers, radio, television as critical media. 

The idea of independent journalism got lost during the dictatorship. That’s why we started our work as analysts, as critics, as reporters – we did everything. It was dangerous, so whoever did that was clearly determined. That gave the whole movement its gravity. Soon we were infiltrated by the State Police that fed us with wrong information in order to discredit our reliability. But we learned fast from these mistakes and were more careful.
After January 14th, 2011 it was save to do all this – and some people believed that being a cyber activist was a good way to get famous. Suddenly people without any experience distributed information they never verified – this did cost us a lot of our credibility. The field changed and we have to adapt to this again. At the moment I am founding together with some people an association for Tunisian bloggers, with the aim to write and explain the history of cyber activism before and during the revolution. We want to create a kind of anthology to give back the respect to this movement, which is an important part of Tunisian history and is missing in the books so far.

The political role of bloggers and other cyber activists has become less important after the liberation of the press. But are the journalists prepared for their new role?

Now it is up to the newspapers. We, the bloggers, laid down our arms. Facebook will become a tool merely for fun.

But Facebook is not exactly an innocent medium itself. Weren’t you skeptical to add to its success?

In Nice at the G20 I found myself in midst old militant leftists who rejected the internet as an American instrument to police the people. For them Facebook is just a big corporation. But I don’t care about the tool I use. I am interested in what I can do with it. Facebook exists with and through us. Do I have to stop using Facebook even though no better tool exists at the moment – just because it benefits Mark Zuckerberg? I never cared whether Facebook benefits from me. Quite the opposite. I see that I am supporting an initiative that gives the freedom to create change in the world. Zuckerberg is making a fortune because he is smarter than others. That doesn’t bother me. One must enter the system to change it. Mark Zuckerberg makes money of Facebook – so what: I am also wearing jeans that have been fabricated elsewhere and that someone makes money of.

But your jeans don’t collect data and makes public everything you do.

Yes. But I cannot say I don’t share information with my friends, just because I fear this tool. Of course I don’t upload photos from everywhere I am, I don’t tell people all the time what I do. I restrict myself. But it seems a lot of people like their lives to be public.

It might be related to the aspect of intimacy that Facebook produces and that helped to use it as a political instrument. People tend to consider Facebook as private not as public space.

That’s why I am promoting the political aspect of it. We should use it responsibly rather then condemning it.

Let’s go back to the revolution. Can you recall the days before it started? You got into prison…

… that was one of the worst moments in my life. You imagine yourself going into prison for ten years or more. When I came out on January 9th, 2011, the first thing I thought of, was to go home, grab my things, and to escape to a place where nobody could find me. So I went to the old part of the city and hid at friends’ places. Then the events leading to the revolution happened, there were fights on the street. I saw young people on the ground, I saw cars being destroyed. I saw women who threw gas bottles out of the window on the police – a real street fight. In the evening, we went back home and commented everything on the net.
On the evening of the 13th there was the last speech of Ben Ali. And shortly after demonstrations throughout Tunisia started to show that that we thought Ben Ali was a liar. And to challenge him and put him under pressure.
On the 14th I participated in the demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior – the images of this demonstration are known all over the world. For me it was quite funny, because I just had gotten out of this building where I was imprisoned. Later we were evacuated, beaten with sticks and attacked with tear gas. The same day Ben Ali escaped, the militia strolled through the city and intimidated everyone. So there wasn’t a moment of joy. We didn’t celebrate the escape of Ben Ali. We directly passed on, time accelerated very fast.
When the first new government was installed, it claimed to purge the government of the elements of the previous regime. The Committee for the realisation of the principles of the revolution [Haute instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution, de la réforme politique et de la transition démocratique] was created and I was appointed to be a member as representative for the activist community. Suddenly I found myself in a world, in which I would never have thought to be in: Directly on the other side of politics, like in a dream. Parallel to this the media solicited me, as well as researchers, students, and foreigners who wanted to study the role of cyber dissent.

The first Arab Spring tourists arrived.

Exactly. The journalists were the first one to arrive, and right after them the Arab Spring tourists. It was a bit funny. Suddenly we were for example contacted by the British Embassy to come there and talk to people. Normally we have to queue for hours or even days in front of the embassy to ask for visa. Now were invited and entered through the grand doors.

A symbolic reversal. 

No, it’s a symbolic exception. If it had been a reversal, the whole Tunisian population would have been treated like that.

On the blog “The Global Advocacy” by now famous blogger Sami Ben Gharbia there is an instruction of how to create a blog. It is written in the spirit that blogging can influence politics, can change things. On the other hand it seems a lot of people only blog for their own ego – and that pushes political issues to the back.

Maybe this problem is typical Tunisian. Whenever we form a group or an association, it always turns into a cockfight and the interior fights of the group dominate over its objective. This creates a lot of problems. The media expected from every cyber dissident to create his own blog, the only way to exist afterwards. There are too many different egos and objectives – and blogging didn’t help us to unite or to feels part of the same movement. For many blogging is just a way to get access to the public.

Tunisia is a country with very developed women’s rights and strong female voices. What role do they play within the bogging scene?

There are of course also women who blog, I don’t know about their numbers. Many are very well known – unfortunately some just say what people in Europe want to hear – for example that mean Islamists are taking over the country.

You mean for example the very popular blog Tunisian Girl by Lina Ben Mhenn…

In a sense this is a problem that came with all this interest by the medias. It creates demands that get fulfilled.

One of the demands of western media is to hear that there is an Islamic threat. But it is true: the Islamist party Ennahda won the first free elections in Tunisia.

Yes. But they are not as bad, as people say, they are intelligent. We have to be aware how well they understood the system of the media. Every other week they push another topic, to occupy all heads and minds. The arabization of the school system was their first goal – and it worked, everybody got right into it. Nobody spoke of anything else. But that’s silly. They just do that to get the attention.

They are populists.

Yes, of course. It is understandable to fear Ennahda, but at a certain moment they will have to make a choice: modernity or orthodoxy. I am sure, they will chose modernity. They will let go of the baggage that they have carried for many years, the conservative radicals etc. But they still need them today because without the radicals, they wouldn’t have gotten 40% of the votes.
We have to stop to get engaged in these silly debates over and over again. Why don’t we talk instead about unemployment – against which we demonstrated during the revolution. And about justice, about the reform of the Ministry of the Interior, the reform of the Ministry of Justice… Why don’t we speak about that? Because they keep us busy debating about the possibility of the sixth Khalifa. That’s silly. They are intelligent and they know very well how to use the situation.

So you are optimistic about where this government will lead the country?

I have nothing to do with this government. But if the majority of population votes for it, I am ready to approve even of this government, which doesn’t represent me. But I am still convinced that they will be replaced by another party that proposes better solutions.

What do you think of the pirate parties all over the world – in Germany they are quite successful at the moment.

I think they are a very good idea. Even in Tunisia, the idea of the pirates has contributed to the revolution. We had shops with pirated DVDs and software – so you could find software that is very expensive in Europe for very cheap. This helped in the revolution –if we would have had to pay for all the software we used, nobody would have been able to afford the cyber dissent. Piracy has helped to develop the whole process. Without it the cyber revolution wouldn’t have been possible.

Interview by Joanna Warsza & Florian Malzacher

Sofiane Belhaj is a Tunisian activist known for his dissident role before the Tunisian revolution of 2010/11. 2008 he started his blog „I have a dream: a democratic Tunisia“ under the pseudonym Hamadi Kaloutcha. In late 2010 he translated American diplomatic cables regarding the Tunisian government released by WikiLeaks into French and Arabic. On January 6th, 2011 during the Tunisian revolution he got arrested and was released three days later.  After the fall of Ben Ali, he was appointed to the Haute instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution, de la réforme politique et de la transition démocratique [Committee for the realisation of the principles of the Revolution, political reform and democratic transition].

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