The Internet, Regime Breakdown, and Democratization: Lessons from Tunisia

The events in Tunisia during the 2011 Arab Spring illustrate both the power of information communication technology to help mobilize anti-government protestsandhow democratization requires more than digitally networked protests, argues Wofford College’s Dr. Rachel Vanderhill.

Rachel Vanderhill
June 04, 2018

Of the six countries that experienced major anti-government protests during the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia had the most successful transition because the protests led to both the end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule and the establishment of a new democratic regime. Information communication technology (ICT) played an important role in the protest movement by enabling Tunisian activists to overcome the government’s censorship and to organize protests. This technology worked in synergy with the local offices of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Bar Association to spread and sustain the protests. ICT played a significant role in the mobilization stage and the breakdown of the regime, but the successful transition to a democracy in Tunisia was the result of other factors, especially the history of an apolitical military and the leading role civil society organizations played in guiding the post-breakdown negotiations to establish democracy. The events in Tunisia illustrate both the power of ICT to help mobilize anti-government protestsandhow democratization requires more than digitally networked protests.

Brief Overview of the Tunisian Arab Spring

The uprising against Tunisian dictator Ben Alibegan with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the city of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010. Although there are disputes about why he committed suicide, most Tunisians believe it was connected to despair about the economic situation.[1] Anger about the high unemployment in Tunisia—some areas had more than 30 percent unemployment—and the blatant corruption of the Ben Ali family contributed to widespread grievances against the regime. The protests began in Sidi Bouzid with protestors demanding dignity (defined as honorable employment) and social justice (defined as equal distribution of wealth).[2] As the protests spread to other cities, the slogans expanded to also incorporate calls for democracy and liberty.[3] The pressure on the Ben Ali regime intensified when the Tunisian Bar Association announced a general strike on 6 January 2011. The anti-government movement gained further momentum a few days later when the police killed dozens of protestors in the cities of Kasserine and Thala. The violence there appalled many Tunisians and contributed to the development of protests in other major cities, including the capital, Tunis, from January 11-14 that culminated in a UGTT-led general strike and protest in Tunis. That evening, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. In little less than a month, mass mobilization caused the breakdown of the 23-year dictatorship of Ben Ali.

The Role of ICT and Civil Society Organizations in Organizing & Sustaining the Protests

ICT played an important role in the breakdown of the Tunisian authoritarian regime. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) engaged in widespread censorship, using filtering software to block specific websites. However, the government lacked the ability to selectively filter Facebook. Its only option was to block the entire domain of Facebook and other social media applications, which it rarely did, and did not do during the protests in December and January. Therefore, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media were available for activists to use to communicate and coordinate. Despite government censorship of the internet, Tunisian activists utilized ICT to spread critical information about the government, to mobilize people, and to organize demonstrations. According to scholars, all of these mechanisms are common methods by which people can use ICT to challenge authoritarian regimes.

Almost immediately after protests began, activists from Sidi Bouzid created a closed Facebook group to share videos and information about events happening in their region. Two large Facebook pages with more than 300,000 members (“Ma Tunisie” and “Tunisia_Tunisie”) connected with activists in Sidi Bouzid to spread information about the protests outside of the city. As Tunisian television and print media ignored the protests in Sidi Bouzid, cellphone videos, YouTube, and social media were essential for challenging the government’s information monopoly. According to the Arab Social Media survey, 94 percent of Tunisians with internet access said they obtained information from social media during the protests.

Along with being a source of essential information about anti-government protests across the country, activists used the internet, especially Facebook, to organize protests. Using regression analysis, Breuer and Groshek found that social network sites were a “central resource for the mobilization of protest” in Tunisia. Ahlem Yazidi, a student involved in protests, noted that “the Internet, especially the social networks, made it possible for activists to organize and mobilize with surprising speed.”

New technology worked in synergy with traditional civil society organizations, especially thelabor union UGTT and the Tunisian Bar Association, to help mobilize people and organize protests. The national leadership of the UGTT, connected to the Ben Ali government, was initially silent about the protests. However, local union activists in Sidi Bouzid were some of the first to join in the protests. For example, the local branch of the National Secondary School Teachers Union brought Mohammed Bouazizi to the hospital and local trade unionists joined in the demonstrations with Bouazizi’s family on the first day of protest. As protests spread throughout the country, the national leadership of the UGTT shifted its position and on 12 January organized a large strike and protest in Tunisia’s second largest city. With a long history of activism against the regime, lawyers also helped to spread protests across the country; for example, lawyers organized demonstrations on 31 December in multiple cities. The participation of the lawyers along with the labor unions demonstrated the cross-class and cross-regional support for the demonstrations, making it clear that there was widespread support for the downfall of the regime. As Michelle Angrist notes, “the nationwide geographical extension of dissent was strategically crucial to the revolution, as it prevented the regime’s coercive forces from containing the protests in a small area. Instead, the regime’s security forces were obliged to react to multiple widespread disturbances which surpassed their ability to repress the movement.” New technology and existing civil society organizations worked in synergy to spread, sustain, and organize protests across the country, directly leading to the downfall of Ben Ali.

Explaining Democratization in Tunisia

Although ICT was a powerful tool for mass mobilization against the Ben Ali regime, it did not drive the subsequent transition to democracy. The breakdown of the authoritarian regime is not the same as developing a new democratic government. Democratization occurred after the overthrow of Ben Ali because of the apolitical nature of the military and the existence of pluralistic civil society organizations. Tunisia is the only successful case of democratization to develop out of the 2011 Arab Spring. 

Multiple theories about regime breakdown consider the military to be an important actor for explaining whether a regime survives protests or is overthrown. Generally controlling the most coercive power, the military’s decision to side with the opposition usually means the end of a regime. There are a multitude of factors that can influence the military’s decision-making about whether to engage in violence to support the regime or to defect—are the protests violent or nonviolent; has the military committed human rights abuses in the past; and how connected is the military politically and economically to the current dictator. Ben Ali had no personal connections with the military and kept the military out of power, politics, and government. Furthermore, the Tunisian military was underfunded, did not benefit from corruption, and had no economic interests. All of these factors influenced the military’s decision to not use violence to protect Ben Ali in January 2011. This choice contributed to Ben Ali’s decision to flee into exile because by 14 January the regime no longer had sufficient coercive capacity to suppress the demonstrations. The military’s decision to also remain apolitical during the transitional period, despite multiple political and security crises, was also important for democratization. Between the downfall of Ben Ali in 2011 and the passage of the new Constitution in 2014, there were a series of crises, including the assassinations of two opposition leaders by the radical Islamic organization Ansar al Sharia. Both assassinations provoked widespread protests. Despite the multiple assassinations, repeated, large-scale demonstrations, and political deadlock on writing the new constitution, the military did not intervene. The Tunisian military’s non-involvement contrasts with the Egyptian military’s decision to launch a successful coup d’état in July 2013. The apolitical position of the Tunisian military gave space and time for Tunisian civil society organizations and politicians to find a way out of the crises. 

By the summer of 2013 the work of the elected National Constituent Assembly (NCA) to write a new Constitution had stalled. After the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, an opposition political leader, in July 2013, Tunisians used social media to organize protests both for and against the dominant political party, Ennahda – a moderate Islamist party. In response, Mustafa ben Jaafar, the head of the NCA, issued an order temporarily suspending the NCA, and ben Jaafar saw civil war as a potential scenario because of the ongoing protests and talks of rebellion.[4] During this political crisis, Ennahda and anti-government protesters used the internet and social media for partisan purposes, worsening the existing tensions. For example, Islamist Facebook pages falsely reported a terrorist attack at an anti-government sit-in to intimidate Tunisians into ending the protest. Responding to the national crisis, four major civil society organizations – UGTT, Tunisian Bar Association, Tunisian Human Rights League, and the employer’s association UTICA – formed the National Dialogue Quartet to provide a parallel process to the NCA to reach a solution. The National Dialogue Quartet attempted to have all the major political parties, especially Ennahdha and the new secular-left political coalition Nidaa Tounes, agree to a “roadmap” that called for the NCA to approve the new Constitution, establish a date for new elections, and have the current Ennahda-led government be replaced by a technocratic government until the elections. The National Dialogue Quartet led the negotiations and worked for months to resolve the conflicts and to have the political parties sign the roadmap, which Ennahda accepted in September 2013. In January 2014, the NCA passed the new Constitution. The existence of civil society is often important for democratization because, as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan argue, 

A robust civil society, with the capacity to generate political alternatives and to monitor government and state can help transitions to get started, help resist reversals, help push transitions to their completion, help consolidate, and help deepen democracy. At all stages of the democratization process, therefore, a lively and independent civil society is invaluable.

The case of Tunisia demonstrates how civil society organizations moved the country from authoritarian breakdown to democratization. The ability of important and established civil society organizations to negotiate with politicians and help obtain a compromise was essential for the development of democracy in Tunisia. The international community recognized their valuable contribution to democracy in Tunisia by awarding the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet.

Activists did use ICT during the turbulent transition period between 2011 and 2014 to organize protests and spread information. However, with the end of internet and media censorship, television, radio, and print media were all now able to report on political developments and protest movements. In addition, the new Constitution and the political compromise resolving the 2013 crises required negotiations, not digitally networked protests, among political elites and representatives of civil society organizations. All four members of the National Dialogue Quartet were well-established civil society institutions in Tunisia that represented varied, but powerful, interests. Establishing a new democratic system requires relationships and negotiations that ICT would not necessarily enhance. One of the most influential elements of ICT is its usefulness in organizing protests. During the transition period, UGTT organized many of the protests and strikes, further demonstrating the influence of civil society organizations. Moreover, as Zeynep Tufekci has argued, digitally networked protests by their nature are often leaderless and require less organizational capacity to develop than would have been necessary before the development of social media. Bypassing the previously required work of building networks and developing organizational structures weakens movements because they lack internal cohesion and an accepted and respected leadership to engage in negotiations, and they have no effective process for resolving internal disputes about tactics and direction.[5] Existing civil society organizations provide the organizational capacity and the leadership to engage in negotiations, as the National Quartet did in Tunisia.

ICT also had only a modest role in Tunisian political campaigns. The major political parties did use Facebook, email, and webpages during the 2011 and 2014 election campaigns, but door-to-door campaigning was the major form of outreach to voters. For example, the League of Tunisian Women Voters, focused on a door-to-door campaign for its voter education and registration work in both 2011 and 2014.[6] Despite its positive influence on the first stage of democratization—the removal of the old regime—during the process of establishing the new democratic regime, the internet had a more conflicted influence as it began to reflect and intensify the political divisions within Tunisia. A Facebook site calling Ennahda a criminal organization had more than 20,000 members and on the opposite side of the political spectrum a radical Salafist Sheik had a Facebook page with more than 100,000 followers. It was common during this tense period for people to use social media to mobilize violent clashes between secular and religious groups in Tunisia. 


Although it is important to be cautious about making general conclusions from one case, events in Tunisia suggest that ICT may be a powerful tool of regime breakdown but that it is not necessary for building a new democratic government. Democratization involves the negotiated process of establishing agreement on the new “rules of the game.” Not only does it appear that ICT is not helpful with this process, but the nature of digitally networked protests may present specific challenges for developing democracy because they are often leaderless and disunified. These characteristics result in having no clear leader or process to negotiate with other groups to write the new rules. The transition to democracy usually requires no military intervention and the existence of civil society organizations to press leaders to move forward with democratization. As the case of Tunisia illustrates, ICT does not help produce either of these conditions.

Rachel Vanderhill is an associate professor of Government and International Affairs and coordinator of the International Affairs program at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her research has focused on questions related to authoritarian persistence, the international dimension of regime change, and the politics of postcommunist states. Recent publications include: Promoting Authoritarianism Abroadand Rachel Vanderhill and Michael Aleprete Jr., eds. The International Dimensions of Authoritarian Persistence: Lessons from Post-Soviet States. In addition, she has published articles in the journals DemokratizatsiyaEurope-Asia Studies, and Communist and Post-Communist Studies



[1]Mounir Khelifa, presentation to SIT Faculty Seminar, Sidi Bou Sidi, Tunisia, May 21, 2017.

[2]Mounir Khelifa. 

[3]Mounir Khelifa.

[4]Mustapha ben Jaafar, presentation to SIT Faculty Seminar, Sidi Bou Sidi, Tunisia, May 24, 2017. 

[5]Zeynep Tufekci discusses these challenges in detail in her book, Twitter and Tear Gas.

[6]Nalja Abbess, League of Tunisian Women Voters, presentation to SIT Faculty Seminar, Sidi Bou Sid, Tunisia, May 21, 2017.