In conventional thinking about the Middle East, perhaps the most persistent cliché is "moderate Arab country." The label seems to apply indiscriminately to monarchies and republics, ancient dictatorships and newly installed ones, from the Atlantic Coast to the Persian Gulf, so long as the country in question is of some use to the United States. And, almost always, it crops up in articles and policy papers vaunting the need for America to support these countries, bulwarks against growing Islamic extremism in the Arab world.
A perfect example is Tunisia. Just three summers ago, Christopher Hitchens delivered a 2,000-word ode to the North African nation in Vanity Fair, describing it as an "enclave of development" menaced by "the harsh extremists of a desert religion." This is a country with good economic growth, a country where polygamy was outlawed in 1956, a country with high levels of education, a country with perfect sandy beaches. And, Hitchens wrote, it "makes delicious wine and even exports it to France."
Never mind that the president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in power for twenty-three years, was regularly winning elections with 90 percent of the vote. Never mind that his wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, had a stake in almost all of the country’s businesses. Never mind that the unemployment rate among college graduates was reportedly as high as 20 percent. Never mind that there was a police officer for every forty adults and that the Internet was censored. In January all these things added up, making the ouster of Ben Ali seem not only possible but probable, and later inevitable.
The Tunisian uprising began on December 17, when Mohammed Bouazizi—a college graduate eking out a living selling vegetables whose unlicensed cart was confiscated by the police—set himself on fire, an act of desperation that inspired the country’s thousands of unemployed graduates to take to the streets in protest. Despite severe police repression—arrests, beatings and murders—the protests continued for several weeks, spreading from Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid to the rest of the country and culminating on January 14, when Ben Ali and his family fled the country.
What is striking about the Tunisian revolution is how little attention it received in the mainstream American press. The Washington Post mentioned the protests for the first time on January 5, two and a half weeks into the unrest, when it ran a wire report about the burial of Bouazizi. Time ran its first piece about the protests later yet, on January 12. Even those who, like Thomas Friedman, specialize in diagnosing the ills of the "Arab street" did not show much interest.
When the mainstream press finally paid attention, it was often to explain the success of the Tunisian revolution in terms of technology. "Tunisian Protests Fueled by Social Media Networks," read one typical headline, from CNN. Was it Twitter, which allowed activists to communicate swiftly and widely with one another? Was it YouTube, where videos of protesters and police abuse were posted? Or was it WikiLeaks, whose cables revealed that Ben Ali and his entourage were mind-bogglingly corrupt? But Twitter seemed to be most helpful in keeping those of us outside the country informed, since few in the Western media were reporting the story; YouTube was censored in the country; and WikiLeaks didn’t reveal anything that the Tunisian people did not already know.