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  • Networked Publics and Digital Contention: The Politics of Everyday Life in Tunisia by Mohamed Zayani
  • Cindy Reiff (bio)
Networked Publics and Digital Contention: The Politics of Everyday Life in Tunisia, by Mohamed Zayani. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 294 pages. $27.95.

The 2011 Arab Spring has yielded a large number of works dealing with the causes and various implications of this major political development. Similarly, the events surrounding the Arab Spring has spurred a debate about the significance of the Internet and more precisely social and interactive media. Mohamed Zayani makes a major contribution to this debate, arguing that instead of focusing on the role that new media outlets played in the uprisings, it is necessary to consider the wider context in which online activism was able to develop.

Furthermore, Zayani stresses the importance of shifting focus from the formal and institutionalized political sphere to the informal space of everyday life in order to be able to trace the evolution of what he calls a “digital culture of contention” (p. 12) in Tunisia from the early days of Internet availability up to the present. In doing so, he lays the basis for a thorough understanding of the Internet’s significance for expressing political dissent and, moreover, he provides readers with an in-depth study about the relationship between online and offline activism, thus enabling a thought-provoking discussion about the public sphere in authoritarian settings.

He begins his analysis with a thorough, well-written summary of Tunisia’s political history after independence from the regime of Habib Bourguiba to that of Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali, highlighting how the autocratic government created a culture of fear among its citizens, hence preventing the wider public from engaging in any kind of political dissent. He reminds us of the fierceness with which Ben ‘Ali ruled over Tunisia and its citizens for nearly a quarter of a century, maintaining a façade democracy to its outside observers. Zayani rightly emphasizes how Ben ‘Ali was particularly keen on portraying Tunisia as avant-garde in matters of information technologies, seeking legitimacy from the international community while cracking down on domestic human rights defenders and cyber-activists alike.

In chapter 3, the author retraces major occurrences of resistance over time, aiming to show the cracks in the state system that existed early on. Retelling the events of the revolution helps the reader to grasp the deeper implications and successfully demonstrates the sociopolitical underpinnings of the upheaval. Of particular importance here is the focus on informal contentious activities, as these constituted the real basis for the resistance movement that eventually led to the revolution.

Chapter 4 introduces the reader to the general development and adoption of Internet technologies in Tunisia in addition to giving a detailed overview of the dissident websites that gradually came to life under the Ben ‘Ali regime, growing into a “counterculture,” though initially they were “animated by their desire for a critical discussion of everyday issues rather than political debates” (pp. 85–86).

In the next chapter, Zayani shows how blogging slowly evolved into an act of cyber-resistance, expanding traditional spaces of contestation into the virtual world and helping to develop a political consciousness [End Page 687] on the part of the activists. By increasingly pushing the boundaries of articulating political discontent, he argues, the blogs not only became a viable counterpart to traditional channels of expression but consequently also provoked the state to react to these new outlets of contentious voices.

Chapter 6 further elaborates on this subject, demonstrating how the broadening of online activism engendered heavy state censorship but also how the evolution of Internet technologies helped to empower citizens to actively engage in militant activities. By focusing on the issue of censorship, the author aims to shows how the Tunisian regime played a major role in eroding its own power and in mobilizing young people to become actively engaged in disruptive political acts, first online and then in the streets.

A large portion of chapter 7 is dedicated to a discussion of the role of Facebook, which, according to the author, largely came to replace conventional blogs, especially in light of the crackdown by authorities...


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pp. 687-688
Launched on MUSE
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