By KARIN LAUB
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 7:57 PM
TUNIS, Tunisia -- At the height of the Tunisian uprising, dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali tried hard to silence the young bloggers who were driving the protests against him. His security agents arrested, even tortured, some of them and repeatedly shut down their sites.
But two months after Ben Ali's fall, the caretaker government that is to lead Tunisia to summer elections has embraced the very tools its predecessor tried to destroy. It has lifted web censorship. Key ministries - including the Interior Ministry once in charge of the feared political police - now communicate with citizens through Facebook.
Some of the bloggers, once under threat from Ben Ali's secret agents, are courted as heroes. One serves in the interim government, others have been awarded an online media freedom prize and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to meet with Internet activists during her first post-revolt visit to Tunisia on Thursday.
The bloggers, many of them university graduates in their 20s, believe they have an important role to play in the new Tunisia, as government watchdogs or political activists. "We're not stopping our fight, and we are the first line of defense of freedom," said blogger Wissem Zghaier, 29, who was beaten and tortured during the uprising.
Social media were key to the Tunisian revolt and the anti-government protests it inspired across the Arab world.
In Tunisia, the protests erupted in impoverished outlying areas in mid-December, after a fruit vendor railing against official harassment and confiscation of his wares set himself on fire outside a government building.
The protests were at first ignored by the national media, but bloggers uploaded video and photos of police violence against the demonstrators, sharing them on Facebook, one of the only social networks functioning under Ben Ali. The images fueled more protests that reached the capital, Tunis, and eventually drove out Ben Ali on Jan. 14.
During Tunisia's transition to democracy, the Internet is bound to play a key role as a forum of political debate: About one-third of the population of 10 million has Internet access, and fundamental issues are at stake in July elections. Voters are to choose a national assembly that will write a new constitution and determine, among other things, whether Tunisia gets a parliamentary or presidential democracy and whether gender equality is enshrined in the basic law.
Even after Ben Ali's ouster, protests largely driven by social media have continued. For example, demonstrators forced the resignation of the first caretaker prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, a holdover from the Ben Ali era some feared was trying to hijack the revolution. They also got the government to dissolve the former ruling party.
Ahead of the Clinton visit, the blogosphere was abuzz with efforts to organize protests against U.S. policy in the Arab world, including Washington's previous support of Ben Ali and other dictators in the region.
On Wednesday, a few dozen demonstrators marched along the capital's Avenue Bourguiba, a tree-lined boulevard with Parisian-style cafes and site of many demonstrations. "Clinton, get out," they chanted, echoing the central slogan Tunisians used against Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years.
"Clinton came here to manipulate our politics," said activist Hussein Hagbei, whose blog is called Sidi Bouzid, after the provincial capital where the Tunisian uprising began. "We don't want Clinton to interfere in our politics."
The 29-year-old has a degree in archaeology, but like many young Tunisian college graduates has not found work in his field. Instead, Hagbei runs a small Internet cafe to make a living.
But the experience of shaping history has galvanized him and his friends. Earlier this week, they gathered in a cafe near Avenue Bourguiba to discuss the possibility of forming a new party to give a voice to young activists.
Another blogger, Tarek Kahlaoui, is seeking training and funding for a news website he hopes will meet Tunisia's need for independent journalism. Bloggers can be influential in Tunisia if they seize the moment, said Kahlaoui, an assistant professor of Islamic history at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Some are going into politics. Zghaier, the activist who was tortured, belongs to the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), a key opposition movement during the Ben Ali era. The 29-year-old, who adopted the middle name "libre," French for free, is also a member of the PDP's "Facebook Committee," which is to help spread its the party's message of a market economy tempered by social justice.
The turnaround of Zghaier's fortunes is particularly dramatic.
On Jan. 7, a week before the fall of the old regime, he was snatched from a Tunis street by plainclothes security agents who put a sack over his head, bundled him into a car and took him for interrogation. For the next six days, Zghaier said he was alternately beaten, threatened, cuffed to a wall, forced to strip and photographed in humiliating positions.
Much of the mistreatment, he said, took place in the basement of the Interior Ministry on Avenue Bourguiba - decried during the Ben Ali years as a torture chamber.
Today, the ministry is ringed by barbed wire and guarded by the military, but in a sign of the new times its officials now communicate with citizens through Facebook.
The ministry's page, with more than 150,000 followers, explains how to apply for civil service jobs, describes police activities and gives updates on the approval process for parties seeking to run in the elections. As of Monday, 37 were approved, the ministry said. It also listed nine that have been rejected, including some with a radical Islamic bent.
One of those behind the outreach is Sami Zaoui, minister of technology and communications in the interim government. Zaoui, a former consultant for an international accounting firm, told a French radio station last month that his first decision on the job was to lift the Internet censorship that had been enforced under Ben Ali.
The government is aware it's being closely watched by the activists, said Fatma Azouz, a journalism professor at Manouba University in Tunis. "I am sure that those who went to the streets are capable of going again," said Azouz. "Any government will be aware of the possibility."