Tunisian Internet users flooded the Facebook page of American President Barack Obama Sunday night with a uniquely Tunisian form of satire called “tanbir.” Their comments were sparked by recent news of Occupy Wall Street protesters injured in clashes with police in the United States, and they cast Obama in the role of Arab dictators who have recently been deposed or shaken by popular protests.
“Tunisian people denounce violations against the American people by the security forces, which affect the freedom of expression,” writes Tunisian Facebook user Fawzi Benarab.
Protests ousted former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14th of this year, and popular uprisings followed across the Arab World. Tunisian citizens elected a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution and appoint a new government on October 23rd.
One Facebook post declares, “[Tunisian Chief of Staff] Rachid Ammar declares a no-fly zone over America to protect peaceful protesters from harm.” In March, the United Nations Security Council voted to establish a no-fly zone over Libya with the same justification. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enforced the operation, with American and international military power.
Tunisian tanbir involves the amplification and exaggeration of reality for humorous effect. It is not meant to be believed, but as satire it can be potent political commentary.
“Obama on the plane to Saudi Arabia,” reads another post. Ben Ali has lived in Saudi Arabia since January.
The most popular of the posts on Obama’s page focus on the reversal of roles. Within the past ten days, American protesters have been injured in clashes with American police, and Tunisians have held the first free and fair elections in their nation’s history. Young Tunisians, flush with their democratic success, are heading to Obama’s Facebook wall to re-write their own revolutionary stories using a cast of characters from the United States. The humor is a giddy declaration that Tunisians have arrived as equals among the democratic nations of the world.
“Eminem arrested for his song, ‘Mr. President,’” says one comment. Tunisian rapper El Général was arrested by the Ben Ali regime in December 2010 for the political content of his music, and his most famous song is still “Mr. President.”
Through tanbir, Tunisia’s young Internet users exaggerate their nation’s success, casting Tunisia as the democratic example helping a troubled foreign country. One comment imagines that the US government has fallen to protesters and declares, “Tunisia is the first country to recognize the American Transitional Council.” The international community’s recognition of the Libyan National Transitional Council as the legitimate national authority in Libya was an important moment in the slow fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
As in most Internet humor, the references can play on very specific moments and quotations. “I am not a sun to- to- to- to sunny all over America,” Obama says in one satirical post. The quotation is taken from a point in Ben Ali’s final speech to Tunisia, the day before he fled the country, in which he appeared nervous and stuttered while trying to explain that he could not fix everyone’s problems at once.
“Samir Tarhouni at Chicago’s Airport to arrest Obama’s family,” writes another commenter. Over thirty members of the extended Ben Ali family were arrested in Tunis-Carthage airport the same night that Ben Ali fled Tunisia, and their legal case is ongoing. Samir Tarhouni is the Tunisian police officer who says he decided, on his own initiative, to go to the airport and arrest the fleeing members of the former regime.
In Arabic, French, and English, the posts lampoon familiar icons of American power and influence, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Wall Street, CNN, President Obama himself, and even cultural touchstones like hamburgers and hot dogs. “Snipers in Sidi Wall Street,” writes one poster, merging Wall Street with the birthplace of Tunisia’s revolution, Sidi Bouzid.
With over 130,000 comments since Sunday and new posts every minute, the sudden outpouring of satire demonstrates a new feeling of empowerment among young Tunisians. With a successful election behind them, suddenly, no power in the world feels beyond reach. Whether the comments are pro- or anti-Obama is largely beside the point next to a dramatic statement of Tunisian pride. Many posts refrain from satire altogether and simply declare, “Viva Tunisie!”
Tunisians have also targeted the page of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Mixed in with the tanbir and pride are familiar cricisms of American foreign policy. “Free Iraq, Americans get the hell out,” reads one post. Several criticize America’s treatment of Palestine. “People want to free Palestine,” reads one comment, echoing the slogan of the Arab Spring, “The people want the fall of the regime.”
“Allahu akbar” appears occasionally, and one writes, “USA ennemy [sic] of Islam and pro Israel.”
The sudden phenomenon appears to be organic and mostly without leaders. Some posts call for one million posts in twenty-four hours; others urge Tunisians to visit other pages. Remarkably, the overwhelming majority of the posts are from Tunisia alone and no other Arab countries.
Americans may feel bemused or threatened by the flood of comments on their president’s Facebook page. Before social media, such large-scale meetings between distant cultures were impossible. After sparking the Arab Spring and holding a credible democratic election, Tunisia’s young revolutionaries continue to surprise the world.