Tunisian revolution finds time for a bit of much-needed Facebook humour

The social network Facebook has been credited for helping Tunisians spread the revolutionary fervour that brought down the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, but it was also a venue for much-needed humour at a time of crisis.


In the Tunisia of deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, where freedom of speech and political debate were harshly restricted, humour became a national pastime. Already widespread under the former regime, funny potshots at Ben Ali and satirical accounts of everyday life multiplied in the violent weeks that shook Tunisia to its core.

Facebook once again helped computer-savvy young people challenge power. It provided Tunisians with a space to organise protests and channel the online rage that spread onto streets and eventually across the North African country. But it also became a venue for much needed humour at a time of crisis.

'A defence mechanism'

Initially, after the first outbursts of unrest were met with brutal police crackdowns in December 2010, the humour that appeared on Facebook was distinctly dark.

Cans or rocks? Tunisians joke about which to use at protests

One example of this was the photograph of a man’s smashed skull, accompanied by the comment “Brain drain”, that was quickly shared and viewed by thousands of Tunisians.

While somewhat macabre, the words struck a chord with a generation of university graduates who struggle to find job opportunities that match their qualifications, and who feel that leaving Tunisia is their best chance for a better life.

The revolution was set off by the self-immolation and death of a young street vendor – reportedly, a university graduate – whose fruit and vegetable stand were confiscated by police.

As the violence and destruction grew in the country in the wake of Ben Ali’s overthrow, so did funny exchanges on Facebook. But at times the messages barely concealed their authors’ growing anxiety.

Young people teasingly spread the word about an “evening in Hammamet, hosted by DJ gun cartridge”. Hammamet, a coastal town that attracts troves of young people with its dance clubs, was the target of looting and arson attacks as soon as Ben Ali left the country.

Tunisian psychiatrist Miriam Lagueche says this type of humour is specific to Tunisians, but reflects a universally-shared psychological defence mechanism. “It’s a reaction to an unbearable, even unspeakable, situation,” she told FRANCE 24.

Humour as resistance

The humour that flowed onto public spaces like Facebook during the Tunisian revolt, however, was not only about coping with events. Humour proved to be an effective tool in unmasking the official political discourse of the teetering regime.

On January 10, Ben Ali took to the airwaves to announce that he was sacking his interior minister and creating 300,000 new jobs by 2012. The response of the Web was fast and razor-sharp. “First job created, minister of the interior. Only 299,999 to go… Yes we can!” hit back one Web user. Another popular comment: "Danger, French people are starting to immigrate illegally to Tunisia to find jobs."

On the run, Ben Ali and his wife are declared "404 not found". The Peugeot 404 car has become the emblem of censorship in Tunisia.
On the run, Ben Ali and his wife are declared "404 not found". The Peugeot 404 car has become the emblem of censorship in Tunisia.

In the same vein, when Ben Ali announced lower prices on basic foodstuffs two days later, the retort was immediate: “Sugar: large quantities available; Milk: large quantities available; Freedom: Error 404, message not found.” The allusion to the standard Internet message for a missing Web address was also a comment on the government’s censure of websites during the crackdown.

With Ben Ali gone, protests in Tunisia have continued to challenge the old political guard – and so have the jokes.

On Facebook, groups are already reacting to the new, but still unfolding social and political landscape and taking the power vacuum created by the regime’s fall in stride.

Web users are calling for the next president of Tunisia to be a "bald and impotent orphan", so as to avoid a potential marriage to a hairdresser. The slight targets Ben Ali’s notoriously corrupt wife Leila Trabelsi, who worked in a hair salon before becoming the country's first lady.

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