In December of last year, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi was stopped by a police officer in the town of Sidi Bouzid — population 39,915 — and stripped of his license to sell fruits and vegetables, which he had been doing to support his family. Frustrated by the lack of work in his hometown, and resentful of the endemic corruption among Tunisia’s police officers and politicians, Bouazizi set himself on fire.
The young man’s shocking act touched off a wave of protests among Tunisian youth in Sidi Bouzid. The demonstrations were soon quashed by state police, however, and the incident gained little notice outside Tunisia, historically one of the most stable countries in the Arab world.
Most Western journalists shrugged off the protests — except for Octavia Nasr. The former senior editor for Middle East affairs at CNN, Nasr was born and raised in Lebanon, and spent the early part of her career as a correspondent for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. Two weeks after Bouazizi set himself on fire, Nasr asked on her blog, “Can Tunisia become the story of December 2010?”
It did not. And even though major media organizations have now begun to recognize the Tunisian uprising as a significant geopolitical event that could reshape the Arab world, Nasr thinks the U.S. media has neglected perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the story: How an unarmed revolution mounted by peaceful demonstrators toppled an autocratic dictator for the first time in the history of the Middle East.
“For four weeks, Tunisia was ignored in our media,” Nasr said in an interview. “They didn’t pay attention to the story until it was so huge and in their face, they couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
By tuning in just as the government of Tunisia was about to collapse, Nasr said, most American news organizations failed to chronicle the revolution as it unfolded. As a result, she said, they’ve done a poor job of explaining how an otherwise stable country — and, notably, an American ally — has become a rallying cry for protesters and opposition groups across the Arab world.
“What the media in the U.S. missed is the anatomy of that revolution. They missed how it happened,” Nasr said. “If you’re a viewer of U.S. media, you got the end tail of the story. But you missed what I think is the fascinating part, which is those three weeks of intense demonstrations done by people with no arms, done by people who just surprised everyone.”
That, Nasr said, could explain why so many in the U.S. media ignored the story of the Arab world’s first peaceful revolution until it was essentially over. With so much turmoil in other Middle Eastern countries — including Egybt, Lebanon and Iran — few expected relatively stable Tunisia to be the first Arab government to fall.
“They didn’t get the attention that the Iran uprising, or the Iran demonstrations, got in 2009, and yet they did it on their own,” Nasr said of the protesters. “I think many people were not betting on that happening. But when it happened, how can you ignore that?”
U.S. media organizations might also have been hampered by a lack of resources. Few major American newspapers, for example, have correspondents in Northern Africa to provide firsthand coverage of the growing turmoil. And yet, as Nasr — who now works as a consultant to international media organizations — pointed out, the Tunisia revolution unfolded on social networking sites as much as it did on the ground.
Bouazizi, for example, posted a note on Facebook explaining his decision to set himself on fire. And the name of the town where he did it became shorthand on Twitter for bloggers and other Tunisians chronicling the progress of the revolution in real time. Some Arab journalists even began referring to the Tunisian protests as the “Twitter revolution.”
“This is the first overthrow of a government by the people in the entire Middle East. Anyone who tells you that this is just a story, or just a story that deserves a blog or an article, I personally am not going to accept that,” Nasr said. “We know that there are other ways to report the story than to have boots on the ground.”
As for the increased attention Tunisia has received since the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell last week, Nasr commended American journalists for giving the story more notice, but cautioned that it was not over. Activists and opposition leaders in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Mauritania and other Middle Eastern countries have been inspired by the events in Tunisia, and officials in some of those countries have already promised at least small steps toward democratic governance.
Tunisians, meanwhile, are insisting on wholesale change.
“Still, to this point, I don’t think we’re giving it the attention that it deserves,” Nasr said of the uprising. “Tunisians are even going further with the story. Now they’re saying they’re not happy with the current government, because that’s a replica, or it has members of the old regime, and they don’t want to see those people in government.”
Nasr added: “For anyone who’s lived in the Arab world — and especially someone like myself, who was brought up in the Arab world — this is unheard of. This is history.”