It has been little more than a year since Tunisians made use of texting services and social media sites like Twitter to help organize the series of protests, which facilitated the overthrow of the widely unpopular President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Now, a year later, it seems that social media is taking on a slightly less militant but still focal role in Tunisian politics: fueling discourse on legislation change.
Ahmed Median, a Global Voices blogger, reported last week that Tunisians have turned to Facebook to enable them organize a protest against the current laws on marijuana use in the country. A Facebook event was created, inviting people to meet in front of the parliament building in Bardo, a city West of Tunis, to demand that marijuana use be legalized on Saturday, February 18. A recent count on the event page revealed that out of the over 28000 invited guests, 5876 said they would attend and an additional 600 indicated that they “might” show up.
Many Tunisians feel that a protest for this cause is necessary because the prevailing drug laws are extremely strict; the automatic penalty issued to someone who “tests positive for smoking marijuana” is a minimum sentence of one year and an exorbitant fine of 1000 dira. Though marijuana is legally banned in other parts of the world, such stringency is unheard of and so Tunisians are hoping that drawing the government's attention to international standards of marijuana legislation will spark a change.
The other interesting issue at play here is the fact that once again, the Tunisian people are utilizing social media as tool for political organization and expression. At the beginning of last year, the world watched on as violent protests against an oppressive and ineffective regime plunged the country into a period of seeming anarchy. When it was all over, barely a few weeks later, journalists and bloggers alike took their keyboards to announce how Twitter and Facebook had largely powered the revolution. Nevertheless, a closer analysis of the revolution's course of events showed that this was not the whole truth; the role of social media had perhaps been overstated.
Now though, I think we have a fairly good example of a political cause (though controversial) that might legitimately owe a significant portion of its momentum and clout to social media. At the very least, the marijuana legalization movement shows how integral the new media is becoming to Tunisian politics, most likely as a result of its ability to mobilize people in support of a cause, something that Harvard professor Yochai Benkler asserts that the internet is inherently able to do.
This past Saturday, nearly 700 people assembled in front of the government building in Bardo to air their grievances. It turns out that the protesters asked for more than just the legalization of marijuana, they also demanded more jobs and condemned the recent arrest of some Tunisian reporters.
We await the fruit of their efforts.