How Disinformation Fueled the Tunisian Revolution

A rumor about the army’s refusal to repress protesters emboldened the resistance and sowed confusion within the regime

How Disinformation Fueled the Tunisian Revolution
Rachid Ammar, the chief of the general staff of the Tunisian army, addressing protesters near the Kasbah in late January 2011. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The story we often hear of how the Tunisian Revolution succeeded goes as follows: After weeks of protests, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ordered the head of the army, Gen. Rachid Ammar, to fire on the protesters. Ammar, however, refused, and without the military to defend him Ben Ali fled the country. Ammar was therefore lionized as a hero of the revolution, with the press calling him “the man who said no.”

But in reality, none of this actually happened. Ammar himself, in his official testimony in April 2011, called it “a false rumor,” explaining that he was never asked to fire on protesters and thus never refused.

Although Ammar never defected, the rumor that he did was widely believed in the final days of the uprising. As a result it was still highly consequential, helping to ensure the revolution’s success.

The protests that instigated the revolution began in Sidi Bouzid, an interior town far from the capital, where a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, following a humiliating altercation with the police. Bouazizi had been selling fruit without a license — a difficult thing to procure in a system rife with corruption and cronyism. The police confiscated his scales and, according to several accounts, one officer slapped him after he swore at her. He attempted to recover his scales and file a complaint about the incident at both the police station and with the municipality but was rebuffed. Shortly thereafter, he stood in front of the governor’s office and lit himself ablaze.

Local activists and youths soon gathered to protest the lack of dignity, work and freedom they and their fellow Tunisians were experiencing. Protests spread gradually to other nearby towns in the interior regions of the country before becoming a nationwide uprising by early January 2011.

Ben Ali responded to these protests by deploying the police, the National Guard and presidential security. The military, by contrast, had until then been kept out of the fray, consistent with Ben Ali’s established strategy of marginalizing and counterbalancing it. Paranoid about the possibility of a military coup, Ben Ali had for decades been reluctant even to let the military out to train.

“We had been imprisoned in the barracks,” one retired army colonel told me.

By Jan. 6, protests had spread close to where the late Col. Tahar Ayari, father of blogger and cyberactivist Yassine Ayari, was stationed. In a conversation with his son, the colonel said that, thus far, “It’s a police affair; we in the army have no orders to interfere with this.” Armed with that knowledge, Ayari told me, he decided in the following days to construct what today we might call a disinformation campaign, alleging that the army had in fact refused orders to repress and sided with the protesters instead. “It was a ruse to destabilize the regime,” he wrote on his blog when he came clean about the rumor in July 2011.

“I thought to myself, how do I push this?” Ayari explained to me in an interview. “I had to package it — we need a name to make the news. Tunisians need a hero. So I [claimed] that ‘Gen. Rachid Ammar refused to give the order for the army to interfere.’ I knew Ben Ali doesn’t need Ammar to give an order. He can give the order directly. And I know Rachid Ammar would not ever dare to say no. But I was happy — the news went around the world. Rachid Ammar was on the front page of every newspaper: the man who says no.”

There is no way to independently verify that Ayari was the sole source of the rumor. In the early days of January 2011, dozens of cyberactivists were actively working to spread information about the protests and the regime’s violent response to the rest of the country — and to the world beyond. Disinformation and misinformation abounded (for instance, that Bouazizi was a college graduate). But Ayari’s familial ties to the military as well as the fact that no one has contradicted his account since July 2011 lend credence to his claims to be the rumor’s primary source.

For several days, the rumor circulated on Facebook and blogs like Nawaat, before being picked up by newspapers starting on Jan. 11. The first to run the story appears to have been al-Doualia, a Paris-based Arabic-language newspaper, which even claimed that after Ammar refused the order, he was fired and replaced by Gen. Ahmed Chabir, though qualifying that “it was not possible to confirm the news from an official source.” That account (and the qualification) would be repeated the next day, Jan. 12, by, among others, France 24 and Jeune Afrique, citing “opposition sources.”

But the rumor was not true. Ammar did not refuse any order from Ben Ali, was never fired by him and instead enjoyed the trust of the president until the very end. Ammar, testifying as a witness to a military court in April 2011, claimed that this was “a false rumor” and that “I have not received any instructions to shoot the demonstrators.” Instead, Ben Ali ordered the military to defend only vital institutions, an order with which Ammar repeatedly complied.

Gen. Ali Seriati, the head of the presidential guard, told me that after weeks of keeping the military in the barracks, on the evening of Jan. 8 Ben Ali ordered the army to deploy in the interior cities of Kasserine and Thala, and then across the country the next day, to defend, among other sites, police stations and ruling party offices. Ammar complied with these orders, which freed up the police to confront protesters. Ben Ali then asked the military to help defend the route to the presidential palace on Jan. 13, and the route to the Ministry of the Interior on Jan. 14, both of which Ammar complied with as well. That Ammar was one of Ben Ali’s most trusted soldiers until the end was made clear on Jan. 14, when in the face of a police mutiny, Ammar was tasked with overseeing the Ministry of the Interior’s operations.

Despite this loyalty from Ammar, many in the opposition and even in the regime believed the rumor that the military had refused to follow orders, in large part because it was believable. The Tunisian military had, after all, been neglected and marginalized by Ben Ali and thus, it could be inferred, had little interest in sticking with him. Ben Ali had historically used the police and National Guard to repress dissent; the military had rarely been called upon to help. Its soldiers were ordinary Tunisians conscripted into service who were “not indoctrinated [or] trained in repression, it is not their daily life,” explained Ayari on his blog. These structural factors made it plausible that the military would refuse if asked to fire.

Indeed, even though Ammar had deployed troops to defend vital institutions during the protests, the junior officers and soldiers on the ground often shirked this mission. When protesters attacked police stations and ruling party offices, the military units stationed there typically looked away rather than repel them with force. Some even attempted to defend the protesters from the police. With the lower ranks defecting, the rumor that the senior ranks had defected became more credible. The “fake news” worked because it aligned with what Tunisians knew about their military and the low-level defections they were witnessing in real time.

As the rumor began to circulate, and as low-level soldiers started to defect, more Tunisians felt emboldened to protest, believing the military would not harm them. “The army is with us, not our enemy,” a major Facebook group, “Tunisian Community,” posted on Jan. 11. Once the rumor spread to newspapers, this perception grew further. “The media knew what they were doing,” said Col. Samir Tarhouni, who was head of the Anti-Terrorism Brigade (BAT) at the time. The rumor “was a signal to the people: Don’t worry about the military, they are with the people.” Abdelaziz Belkhodja and Tarak Cheikhrouhou, in their definitive account of the revolution, “14 Janvier, L’enquête,” likewise write that the rumor “spread with the force and speed of a tsunami … encourag[ing] people to continue the struggle.” Seeing the success of the resistance in the interior, and the lack of aggression from the army, protests swelled in the final days of the uprising, buoyed in part by this perception that the military was on their side.

Importantly, this belief is also part of the reason protesters treated the military far more kindly than the police. While protesters yelled at and attacked the police whenever they came close, they instead cheered and hugged the army, believing it had already taken their side. As one army general told me, “The country was lucky that no one attacked the soldiers … it could have initiated a chain of violence.” In fact, Ayari wrote on his blog that his goal was precisely “to push everyone to fraternize with the army, something I had no doubt [would work], as the son of a soldier, who knows the ethics of the military.” The rumor of the military’s defection encouraged socializing with the troops, in turn making the military’s defection a fait accompli.

Beyond these effects on the protesters and the military, the rumor also had a major influence on the internal security forces, sowing doubt, mistrust and confusion in their ranks. Hearing the rumor, many within the police believed that the military would not back them up in subduing the protesters. “The lower ranks believed the rumor,” Tarhouni recalled. “They did not know the full truth. There was certainly a percentage of them who believed it.” Even Seriati, the head of the presidential guard, found the rumor credible enough to confront Ammar about it on Jan. 10, before it had appeared in newspapers. “I received a phone call from Gen. Ali Seriati informing me of the existence of a rumor on the social network Facebook stating that I had … refused to provide orders to shoot at the demonstrators,” Ammar recalled in his testimony. Though Ammar immediately denied the rumor, the seeds of doubt that the military might not defend the regime had been sown, even at the highest levels.

Those seeds then sprouted further on Jan. 13, when a new rumor spread among the security forces that the military was withdrawing from the capital. “I was concerned about the effect of that rumor on the morale of the security forces,” Ammar noted, “which would have considered that they were operating alone, and which would push them to withdraw in turn.” To try to convince the police that the army was still there, Ammar ordered the troops to firmly announce their presence. Despite his efforts, many in the security forces began to give up. “On the evening of Jan. 13, some security personnel from the police, the National Guard and the customs handed over their individual weapons to the military barracks,” Ammar recalled. The rumor that the military was defecting had begun to produce actual defections in the security forces. As Ayari told me: “The police thought the army was not going to help them, so they chose to abandon Ben Ali.”

Seeing the writing on the wall, Tarhouni, the head of the BAT, decided to go rogue the next day, Jan. 14. Overwhelmed by protesters, running out of tear gas, and not sure the military would help them quell the masses, the security forces were desperate for a solution that might allow them — if not Ben Ali — to survive the revolution. When Tarhouni learned that members of the much-hated Trabelsi family — Ben Ali’s corrupt in-laws — were attempting to flee the country, he realized he had his opportunity. He would arrest them at the airport. “The plan was to broadcast this live to say that we have this group as hostages, as a final gesture of being on the side of the people, and to exert pressure in these final moments,” Tarhouni explained in a post-revolution press conference. “If the Tunisian people realized what I was doing,” he told me, “there would be a million people at the airport supporting me.”

Tarhouni and 11 of his men arrived at the airport, and around 2:50 p.m. they captured 28 of Ben Ali’s in-laws, including the first lady’s nephew Imed and her brother Moncef. Hearing of the mutiny, Ben Ali then declared a state of emergency at 3 p.m., which placed the military in charge of the country’s security and thus Ammar at the head of the operations room in the Ministry of the Interior. The army special forces were then flown in from Bizerte to try to help free the Trabelsis.

By then, Tarhouni’s rebellious band of 12 had grown to 170. He had called in additional reinforcements from the BAT and secured the defections of Col. Zouheir El Ouefi, the head of the National Rapid Intervention Brigade, and Col. Larbi Lakhal, the head of the National Guard Special Unit. They said they would hand over the Trabelsis to the army only in the presence of the media. Ammar relayed to Seriati that “it is indeed a mutiny of the police and the national guard.”

In light of the mutiny, and paranoid that the defections might cascade further, Seriati admitted to Ben Ali that he was now unable to ensure his safety. According to a statement Ben Ali released via his lawyers later that year, Seriati then advised him “to accompany his family to Jeddah for a few hours, time to allow the secret services to foil the plot and ensure presidential security.” At 5:47 p.m. Ben Ali decided to flee the country, thinking he would return once the situation stabilized. As further evidence that Ammar had remained loyal until the end, Ben Ali called Ammar from the plane around 8:20 p.m., inquiring whether the situation was now safe enough for his return. “I can’t tell you anything yet, Mr. President. The situation is not clear,” he replied. Ben Ali remained in exile in Saudi Arabia until his death in 2019. He was tried in absentia and convicted for a number of crimes, while Imed and the other Trabelsis arrested at the airport were prosecuted in person.

Though Ammar never defected from Ben Ali, the rumor that he did had real-world consequences that shaped the success of the uprising. It led protests to grow and protesters to fraternize with the military, ensuring the soldiers would not hit back. It sowed confusion within the security forces, and ultimately led some to mutiny.

“It worked,” Ayari wrote on his blog. “It helped to get rid of ZABA (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), it encouraged the BAT (Anti-Terrorism Brigade) to do something that made ZABA flee.” While it may be a stretch to say that the disinformation campaign caused Ben Ali’s ousting, it certainly contributed to the chain of events and the state of confusion that caused Ben Ali to flee.

Tunisia’s uprising also sheds light on when such disinformation campaigns might be effective. The rumor of the army’s defection in Tunisia worked because it was plausible: Had Ben Ali asked the military to fire, it is likely that at least some of the lower ranks would indeed have refused, given that historically the military had been neglected and marginalized by the regime. “Ben Ali and Ammar knew that such an order wouldn’t have been obeyed,” claimed retired Brig. Gen. Mohamed Ali El Bekri. “The Tunisian army in 2011 would not shoot other Tunisians. We were not going to harm the population for the good of a king!” Historical structure and personal agency thus interacted to produce the success of the revolution.

None of this analysis is intended to dismiss the real heroes of the revolution: the people who rose up to break the shackles of dictatorship. Without the protesters, nothing would have been set in motion. Yet uprisings routinely fail, whether crushed by regimes or simply ignored until they fizzle out. Tunisia’s uprising speaks to the power of disinformation and the conditions under which it might help facilitate a revolution’s success.

This essay is drawn from Grewal’s book, “Soldiers of Democracy? Military Legacies and the Arab Spring” (Oxford University Press, 2023).

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