Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, and how mobile phones helped it happen

The overthrow of Tunisian President Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali is a sign of political ferment both in Africa and in the Islamic world, fed by economic distress, political repression, and young people with the tools -- including mobile phones and Internet -- to make changes.

Hassene Dridi/AP
A man carries goods from the house of Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother of the former President's wife, Leila Ben Ali, in Sokra, 10 miles from Tunis on Saturday. The Tunisian capital's main train station has been burned to the ground, and many shops have been sacked and looted in violence that came after the North African nation's president fled the country on Friday.

I returned home to Africa five years ago because I had and still have a supreme conviction that Africa is rising, that Africa is actually the last great convergence trade of this world of ours. And that the real African story is not about what can be dug out of the ground but about the human capital, the 1 billion souls who walk upon it. And in many ways, the Wal-Mart acquisition of MassMart in the past few months confirms that.

The silver bullet, the entry ticket for Africa to the 21st century and this super-late cycle convergence has been the mobile phone. The mobile phone [internet-enabled and a mobile wallet] is the game-changer, at least here in Africa and perhaps throughout the world. It is the equivalent of the 21st-century fishing rod. Every development fellow worth their paycheck would say, "Give a man or woman a fish and you feed them for a day; give them a fishing rod and they can feed themselves for life."

Sitting in Nairobi and observing the tape at my investment firm, [It was Edwin Lefevre who said, 'The Tape is Your Telescope' in 1923 in his seminal book, Reminiscences of a Stock Market Operator], the Tunisian tape and the Tunis stock exchange had been flashing on my radar for quite some time. In fact, Tunis was the belle of the frontier-market ball.

From January 2006 through September 2010, it had rallied 243.781 percent. Until the Sri Lankans routed the Tamils and the Colombo Stock Exchange took off into orbit on a Tamil surrender peace dividend, Tunis was probably the best performing stock index in the world. This year it has slumped 10 percent through Friday, and the reasons are best seen in a potted transcript of the week's events.

Mr. Ben Ali in a speech on Monday called the riots “terrorist acts” that were the work of “masked gangs” operating for foreign parties.

"We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of God," the crowds chanted on Tuesday in Tunis.

On Thursday, the American secretary of State said the following in Qatar.

“In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” said Secretary Hillary Clinton. “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever, If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum.”

[As an aside, I think Hillary has so much equity in the Islamic world. I think if she would tell her story, she would win the argument hands down with the womenfolk, who are clearly fed up and too scared to speak out.]

“No presidency for life,” Ben Ali, 74, said in Tunis, pledging not to run after 2014.

By Friday evening he was gone in a puff of smoke. French President Sarkozy would not allow him to land on French soil and it was the Saudi Arabians who accepted the Ben Ali entourage.

The day’s seismic events in Tunisia were described by the broadcaster Abeer Madi al-Halabi as serving “a lesson for countries where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones.”

I have traded emerging and frontier markets all my life and I have noticed how often change tips not at the center but at the periphery, and then it travels to the center. This Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was a 21st-century revolution. It was not televised but tweeted. I am certain its success is entirely correlated to the ubiquity of the mobile phone and the Internet. I recall a friend and an ambassador telling me, "Aly-Khan, the revolution is coming. The question is, can it be managed?"

And this Jasmine Revolution will amplify two ways: through the Maghreb and towards the holy cities of Saudi Arabia. The question remains the degree of the amplification. And it would be naive to expect that it might not cross the Sahara and head south.

Change is never incremental, it tips and surges. Looking at Tunisia and Africa, I see so many similarities. There is the widest spread between the average age of the rulers and the average age of the ruled. Tunisia is but the first example of the elastic band snapping. The demographic skew is such that an average of more than 60 percent Africans are under the age of 26. Massive urbanization pulls have concentrated these young people in cities. Through mobile phones, and the Internet, and social media, they are all connected.

And keep an eye on food prices. Those are sky high and not coming down and not unlike dry kindling, awaiting a spark.

The Jasmine Revolution feels like the story of Gulliver and the Lilliputians. Gulliver was the state. All powerful. You owned the levers to the state, you owned it all. L'état, c'est moi. Then the Lilliputians got connected and that connection was the net with which to catch their Gulliver.

John Donne wrote:

"...Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee..."

Aly-Khan Satchu is an investments broker in Nairobi who blogs at Satchu's Rich Wrapup here http://www.rich.co.ke/rctools/wrapup.php

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