Tunisia’s president does not have a Facebook account. Kais Saied comes from humble origins. At university, he had qualms with the professoriate from the largely urban Beldi elite. Saied kept aloof from the politics of his day when Bourguiba and Ben Ali ruled over Tunisia.
His entrance onto the political stage following Ben Ali’s overthrow was not immediate. A later-comer to the meandering journey of Tunisia’s democratic transition, Saied insists on not only being in the driving seat but to reverse course in an entirely, seemingly opposite, different direction. But such a course of action must be qualified by two observations. He has no political party. He has no ideology.
Everything about his rise to power flies in the face of reason. Except for one thing. The “electronic flies” that seem to root for him. These internet trolls target Saied’s opponents. A campaign of de-legitimization and misinformation accompanies Saied’s decision, amidst the populist July 25 hirak, to suspend temporarily the country’s fledgling democracy. Unruliness in cyberspace echoes the discontent on the streets.
So How Was July 25 Manufactured?
In asking this question, the repertoire of indignant citizens is not and should not be dismissed. Young people’s disillusionment revolve around the two putatively huge gains for the North African country. Firstly, the 2011 revolution has now been hijacked by the political class. Secondly, the resulting procedural democracy has not delivered on the promises of dignity and justice.
Two weeks before the outbreak of July 25 country-wide pro-Saied protests, well-orchestrated and organized social media accounts embarked on a campaign involving trolling and fake news. These “electronic flies” galvanised otherwise amorphous publics for D-Day. Tunisia’s 64th anniversary of the republic would be the very occasion for a showdown in which to put a constitutional coup into effect. Also, that was a date Ennahda’s Abdelkarim Harouni clumsily pinpointed as a day of reckoning about his “Karamah (dignity) Fund”. The rest is history.
Thus, Facebook pages (vastly erased), constitute a useful source of information to discover the details of the internet blitz orchestrated ahead of July 25. To be precise, July 12 is pivotal in the launching of the pro-Saied July 25 protest hirak. On that day, Facebook pages were created to spread the movement. Administrators managed Facebook activists, amongst young recruits, in an efficiently run and sustained campaign over two weeks across the entire country. Facebook pages with unknown admins seem to have been instrumental mobilization tools, as one Tunisian journalist discovered in interviews with participants in the July 25 protests.
Facebook Coordinators & Moderators
A user using the name “Ridha Chiheb Mekki,” an apparent leader in this campaign, seems to have played a major role through his moderating and administering these Facebook pages. Blame for Tunisia’s problems were cast the door of Saied’s opponents as their failures and mistakes. They included the rising coronavirus infections and daily fatalities, near collapse of the national health system, police brutality, soaring food prices and unemployment. Mechichi was singled out for responsibility due to being both prime minister and interior minister.
Political and economic problems were magnified in this effective campaign that brought Mechichi’s popularity and parliament’s credibility to an all-time low. Popular resentment was fanned. Ten Facebook pages were run by an army of dedicated activists. These local “electronic flies” capitalized on the problems facing Tunisia and spun them as failures to drum up public hysteria about the Mechichi-Ghannouchi duo. Tweets contained hashtags about economic and financial theft.
Pages and Activists on Facebook and Twitter
||We are all Kais Saeid
||No Fear No Horror Power belongs to the People
|أنصار الأستاذ قيس سعيد《الشعب يريد 》
||Supporters of Kais Saeid “The People Want”
||We are all Kais Saeid
||No to Dialogue Yes to Accounting
|أوفياء قيس سعيد
||Loyal to Kais Saeid
|فخامة الرئيس #قيس_سعيد
||His Excellency President Kais Saeid
Operative terms: Kais Saied’s name is key to all pages and hashtags. The campaign was more than just fanning anti system sentiments. It also used the pages as platforms for rallying support for Saied. That support was founded on the notion of it being synonymous with returning the power to the people, a declaration of popular approval (“the people want”) vital for legitimation for actions to follow the protests, presumably. The people get what the people want, by investing trust in Saied. The penultimate purpose, supposedly: Bringing to account corrupt officials. A quasi Peronist piece of justice sounding populist call.
Those in charge of Facebook pages are very efficient. They carefully selected vocabulary, pandering to the the “psyche” of young people.
They employed language that was part of ordinary people’s daily lingo. This device has made the internet hirak of the 12-25 July period tap into pent up feelings of disaffection, anger and boosted group solidarity, whilst rallying them around a “clean” figure, Kais Saied, as a national savior, and symbols of people’s power, couched in anti-corruption sentiments, and common feelings of victimhood due to marginalization and unemployment. Rap songs, amongst other videos, about contraband merchants (knatria) and talk of zeit al-hakim (subsidized cooking oil) proved impactful, in this regard.
The Facebook pages administrators and users perfected mastery of repeated vocabulary, including repeated expletives used against targeted figures (Ennahda and Karama figures, Mechichi) and institutions (parliament, government).
In addition to expletives, various forms of trolling were deployed to draw public attention and drum up public hatred against parliament and government. They did this first, through re-activation of terms that were almost out of currency, such as khwanjiyah, a denigration of the word Ikhwan, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood as a stand-in for Islamists. Second, they engaged in labelling. Common derogatory terms included tahan (miller, also informant) about Mechichi and saffah (slaughterer) about Ghannouchi played on the stereotypes of the fanatical Islamist.
Third, fear-mongering through use of phrases like al-khatar al-dahim, imminent danger, from the ruling government. This, of course, is the same legal term in Article 80 of the Constitution, which the President would invoke on July 25—justifying his exceptional measures on grounds of “imminent danger” whose source remains ambiguous. Fourth, denigration is another method found in these Facebook pages, for instance, “Parliament stinks.”
Such trolling strategies can be contrasted with language used in reference to the President. For instance, we are all Kais Saied, Al-Ustadh Kais Saied (a respectful address akin to Mr. or Prof.) or calling him “the President” as in Ansar al-Ra’ees (the President’s supporters). Similarly acclamatory language was attached to “the people,” as in al-sultah mulk al-sha’b (people’s power). This repeated phrasing constructs a binary of Kais Saied plus “the people” on one side and the vilified government, embodied in Ghannouchi and Mechichi, on the other.
Social Media and Democracy
The democratic connectivity created by Facebook and Twitter is taken to the next level, almost rigging politics, a kind of cyber-gerrymandering. We do not know who is doing the recruiting and the lobbying and even the manufacturing of ‘publics’ and ‘fake news.’ All one needs is a Twitter or Facebook community that uses trolls pandering to anti-democratic emotion (anger, hatred, exclusion and rejection of dialogue). We have seen all of these in this campaign of the July 25 hirak.
Kais Saied may have built up an image as “transparent” and “clean,” above the fray. Yet Facebook activism of his supporters suggests there is more to the President’s July 25 announcements than a simple response to spontaneous popular outrage.