WikiHistory: Did the Leaks Inspire the Arab Spring?

A lmost two weeks before the desperate young fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on a street in Tunis and a full month before the uprising that ensued, touching off the “Arab Spring” that is still unfolding, the rationale for revolution appeared on the Internet, where it was devoured by millions of Tunisians. It was a WikiLeaks document pertaining to the unexampled greed and massive corruption of Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and all his money-hungry family.

The most memorable details were in a dispatch written by Robert F. Godec, the US ambassador to Tunisia, who had dined a year earlier in the lovely seaside resort of Hammamet. His host was Mohamed Sakher El Materi, the prosperous son-in-law of Ben Ali. The luxurious appointments of the Materi mansion, its lavish display and flaunted wealth clearly struck a chord in the American. Roman columns and ancient frescoes adorned the cream-colored home; an infinity pool shimmered beneath a 50-meter terrace, its constant supply of water pouring liberally from an ancient lion’s head, Godec reported in a passage subheaded “Al-Materi Unplugged.” And that wasn’t all:

“Al-Materi has a large tiger (‘Pasha’) on his compound, living in a cage,” Godec wrote. “He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day.” As for the family itself, its members gobbled their own gustatory treats—fish, turkey, steak, and octopus were followed that night by ice cream and frozen yogurt freshly flown in from Saint-Tropez. The talk on the night Godec was present, however, focused less on the gourmet items than the cash required to keep them coming. The already wealthy son-in-law wanted to acquire a McDonald’s franchise in Tunisia, and he needed help from the US.

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Tunisia happens to have the highest percentage of Facebook users in the world—“Something like two million among ten million people have their own Facebook account,” Radwan Masmoudi, president for the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, told a British newspaper. Since the information on the site is constantly being passed along, it is almost inconceivable that the fruit-seller Bouazizi, a frustrated university graduate of twenty-six, didn’t know the contents of Godec’s leaked report. On November 28th of last year, a TuniLeaks site was created—the very day the New York Times began posting the materials it had received from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Al Jazeera, too, which enjoys tremendous popularity in Tunisia, had drummed the WikiLeaks revelations into the consciousness of disgusted citizens. When that brutal policewoman told Bouazizi that his cart would be confiscated because he didn’t have a proper license, the contrast between the fruit-seller’s own shabby, miserable existence—an existence that allowed the policewoman to slap him around and spit in his face—with that of Pasha, the pampered tiger munching four chickens a day, must have been unbearable.

“Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or (yes) even your yacht, the Ben Ali family is rumored to covet it, and reportedly gets what it wants,” read the ambassador’s cable. “Quasi-mafia” is how he described the clan.

And the very fact that this frank assessment of their arrogant leadership appeared in an American cable intended for an American government exacerbated a nation’s embarrassment. Humiliating, the thought that Yankee infidels were passing judgment on a Muslim nation’s conscious passivity, its submission and calm acquiescence in the face of undisguised corruption. Humiliating that the entire world now knew what these Americans had once quietly told each other. Humiliating above all that Tunisians themselves were not exactly ignorant of what the Ben Ali family had been up to—long before WikiLeaks had published a single syllable—and had done nothing about it.

In the Muslim world, in other words, it is not just women who often, traditionally, go about veiled. It is—or rather it used to be—information. In Yemen, Egypt, and Syria, in Bahrain and Libya, that veil has now been lifted, for better or for worse, not only by fruit-vendors or Muslim extremists or courageous lawyers or even youthful rebels—but by WikiLeaks.

T he United States government believes, with reason, that certain of the documents unleashed by WikiLeaks are responsible for an almost unparalleled global shift in power and stability in the Muslim world (thus usurping, in a sense, the role of the US itself). Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed as much late last year, when she said that the work of the anti-secrecy organization is “not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships . . . that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.”

Paradoxically, because of the potency of those Wiki revelations and their short- and long-term repercussions across the Arab world, which Clinton had grasped immediately, the US government often attempts to diminish WikiLeaks’ stature and effect. Before his abrupt departure, for example, Clinton’s own spokesman, Philip Crowley, insisted: “Tunisia is not a Wiki revolution. The Tunisian people knew about corruption long ago. They alone are the catalysts of this unfolding drama.”

But, as Crowley well knew, they were not. The catalyst was Private Bradley Manning, who fed WikiLeaks most of its information—the same Private Manning whose treatment, after arrest and incarceration, Crowley found so appalling he felt obliged to mention it in public. And then offer his resignation.

A s it turns out, no one understood the broader implications of the WikiLeaks revelations and their likely effects on the hitherto bright future of dictatorships better than Muammar el-Qaddafi. In mid-January 2011, in a televised statement, he warned Tunisians against being tricked by “WikiLeaks, which publishes information written by lying ambassadors in order to create chaos.” By then, of course, Qaddafi’s rebellious neighbors had just unloaded the Ben Ali family, and as the shrewd columnist Mona Eltahawy put it, “His speech to Tunisians could be summarized thus: I am scared witless by what happened in your country.”

Certainly, most Western journalists were initially fairly obtuse about the impact of WikiLeaks. ( Los Angeles Times headline on November 29, 2010: “More laughs, not many surprises in WikiLeaks release on Moammar Kadafi.”) Readers initially learned nothing more substantive from summations of the trove of documents than that “Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi sees no reason to submit a passport photo along with his US visa application.” Or, “His favorite among four Ukranian nurses in his employ, a ‘voluptuous blond woman.’”

Within no time the snickering ended. One month after the Ben Ali family flew out of Tunisia, a series of protests and confrontations erupted in Libya. They were, in timely manner, intensified by fresh group of WikiLeaks excerpts, previously unpublished by major media outlets. Among their revelations were insights into how the grown sons of Qaddafi were frantically trying to cover up their spending excesses.

Mutassim Qaddafi for instance, paid $1 million to the singer Beyoncé Knowles for appearing at his private New Year’s Eve party in St. Barts, an event, according to one cable, “featuring copious amounts of alcohol.”

Hannibal Qaddafi had been briefly jailed after beating up his servants in a Swiss hotel four years ago. This kind of behavior, the Associated Press realized, on reviewing Hannibal’s history, “may have helped spark the current uprising.” In 2009, there was yet another problem involving violence: this time, the cables further reported, the irrepressible Hannibal beat up his wife, Aline, in London, but she was pressured by female Qaddafi family members not to reveal to police the precise cause of her injuries.

Mutassim also pressured the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation to give him $1.2 billion in cash. And Colonel Qaddafi’s eldest son, Mohammed, heads the Libyan Olympic Committee, which owns forty percent of the Global Beverage Company (i.e., the country’s Coca-Cola franchise).

“The family has provided local observers with enough dirt for a Libyan soap opera,” one secret cable concluded. It was written last year by Gene Cretz, then the US ambassador to Libya. (Cretz left his post in January, after the “voluptuous nurse” cable was made public, but thanks to WikiLeaks, other, far more explosive cables concerning Libya continued to trickle out long after his departure.)

In Libya, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights, the number of Internet users is rapidly approaching one million—a huge percentage in a country of six million. On February 18th, Qaddafi shut down that means of communication (following the example of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt), but the prohibition didn’t last long. On February 21st, when the Guardian published an article on the leaked cables under the headline “A guide to Gaddafi’s ‘famously fractious’ family,” a large number of Libyans were able to read the substance of the revelations in translation.

By February 24th, Qaddafi’s own cousin, Gadhaf al-Dam, who had served as ambassador, defected to Egypt and denounced the dictator. Four days later, residents of Zawiya, near Tripoli, were shouting, “Free, free Libya!”—while Qaddafi’s central banks were busy shoveling out the equivalent of $400 per family to shore up support for the colonel’s murderous regime.

“To us,” said an army officer who had switched over to the rebels, “Qaddafi is the Dracula of Libya.”

I f you look up exactly what—or rather who—triggered the Libyan rebellion, you’ll learn that what is occasionally called “a key spark in the Libyan uprising” was the February 14th arrest of Fathi Tarbal, a human rights lawyer—in much the same way common wisdom usually suggests that Tunisia’s revolution was sparked by a suicidal fruit-seller, or that the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was prompted by the unparalleled and astonishing success of protesters in Tunisia. All this is true as far as it goes. But one spark isn’t invariably enough to cause most major conflagrations.

In Egypt, additional fuel came in early December when Simon Tisdall of the Guardian , an early receptacle of 250,000 WikiLeaks documents, told
his readers that according to confidential cables written by Margaret Scobey, the American ambassador to Cairo, Mubarak would prefer to die in office rather than step down. “The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, and if Mubarak is still alive it is likely he will run again and, inevitably, win,” Scobey wrote.

And if Mubarak died in office, she added, the presidency would likely go to his son, Gamal. Once again, this was not exactly news to the citizens of Egypt. (When I lived there two decades ago, I asked an Egyptian publisher about elections and Mubarak’s unfailing ability to win them. His arid response: “I can vote for one of two people for president. Hosni. Or Mubarak.”) Nonetheless, it was the cool finality of this foreign assessment, the national humiliation of seeing, in print or on the air, such a blunt summing up—“Mubarak now makes scant public pretense of advancing a vision for democratic change”—that exacerbated the rage.

Within almost no time, a massive Internet campaign was launched. (Egypt has an Internet penetration of more than twenty-one percent, according to EconomyWatch.com, so initially mass protests across the country were fairly easy to organize.) Egyptian bloggers flocked to their screens, choosing a language that was an eerie reflection of Scobey’s.

“In every normal election, people have their eyes trained on the result: who wins, who loses, and how things will change. In this election, however, we all know Hosni Mubarak is going to ‘win’ barring some miraculous deus ex machina,” wrote Bay’aa, a pseudonymous Egyptian, who is believed to be a woman.

Two months after the Guardian ’s WikiLeaks post on Egypt, Mubarak fled Cairo.

In other words, the flames of revolt were stoked, industriously and ceaselessly, by the media, courtesy of what it was learning by sifting through piles of documents amassed by WikiLeaks—so many documents that it was impossible to digest them all at once, and some information only trickled out slowly.

Thus, the initial mildness of Bahrain’s protestors was inflamed by a WikiLeaks document published only on February 18th, by the Daily Telegraph , which had just begun a partnership with Assange: Shia detainees, it turned out, reported having been tortured by the Bahraini regime of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. In a country of 738,000, of whom 649,300 are Web users, it is safe to assume that this piece of news did not go unnoticed; in fact, on that very day, the Bahraini government shut down the Internet—a bit too late, as it turned out. By February 23rd, some two hundred thousand protestors were on the main highway leading to the financial district.

New York Times editor Bill Keller gave WikiLeaks its due when, during a discussion of Tunisia with NPR’s Terry Gross, he said, “We’ve tracked down the family of the guy who immolated himself. . . . But it also seems to be true that the circulation of the Wikileaks documents that talked about how the Ben Ali regime lived high off the hog . . . clearly did circulate widely, and if it didn’t start what happened in Tunisia, it certainly fueled it.”

In similar manner, the WikiLeaks cable detailing a quiet, ninety-minute tête-à-tête between Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and US General David Petraeus lit two large sticks of dynamite underneath Saleh’s unpopular regime. Even in late November, when a secret cable from onetime US ambassador Stephen Seche was first released, the media understood that, of all the WikiLeaks revelations, the cable from Yemen—the poorest nation in the Arab world and home to Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born al-Qaeda leader targeted by the US for assassination—could likely be the most devastating. In particular, Saleh’s admission that he was going to continue lying to his fellow Yemenis about who was responsible for devastating drone strikes in the Yemeni countryside looked the most inflammatory: “We’ll continue to say the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh promised Petraeus. To be sure, practically everyone in Yemen knew those drones to be American. But with that leak, once again the dark stain of public humiliation spread across a Muslim nation. Once again, the news that Westerners were shoring up a Muslim nation’s inherent weakness, its absence of firepower, and total reliance on US strategy—and that a Muslim ruler was making light of it—enraged and embarrassed Saleh’s countrymen.

With literacy rates currently around fifty percent (and among women, only at twenty-five percent), Yemen lags behind its neighbors in Internet penetration. But word got around nonetheless. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of a Yemen Times article on the subject: “President Ali Abdullah Saleh lied about American bombings in Yemen, revealed classified US embassy cables from around the world” (emphasis added). However, equally damaging, it turns out, was Saleh’s quip about alcohol, forbidden in the Muslim religion. While delivering a perfunctory complaint to Petraeus about drugs and weapons which, he claimed, were being smuggled into Yemen from Djibouti, Saleh hastened to add that he wasn’t all that put out by other contraband. The smuggling of whiskey was just fine with him, Saleh pointed out: “provided it’s good whiskey.”
“One of the issues that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has had with the Yemeni government is that it claims over and over that the Yemen government doesn’t uphold sharia law,” Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton University expert on Yemen told NPR. “So for them to be able to position the president as someone who drinks whiskey, who jokes about whiskey, this will really fit seamlessly into the narrative they have been peddling for the last several years.”

(Saleh used to have a fine sense of humor all around, although one imagines that by now it is much subdued. In yet another WikiLeaks cable, this one sent in 2008 by State Department terrorism chief Daniel Benjamin, the Tunisian leader is quoted as observing that Americans “are hot-blooded and hasty when [they] need us,” but “cold-blooded and British when we need [them].”)

Since the WikiLeaks excerpts were published, wry humor has fallen out of fashion in Yemen. By late March, Saleh was warning everyone that his country was sliding into civil war; rival military factions were deploying tanks in the capital of Sanaa, and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was clearly discomfited when asked how dangerous a post-Saleh Yemen might be to the United States.

“I think it is a real concern,” Gates told ABC’s This Week , “because the most active and . . . perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaeda—Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—operates out of Yemen.”

And around the same time, an Awlaki uncle and opposition leader, Mohsin Bin Farid, was telling journalists that his well-known al-Qaeda nephew was seen “walking freely” somewhere in Yemen just three months earlier.

“So many people saw him,” he exulted.

A nd how to account for the sudden turn in the fortunes of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a onetime ophthalmologist and to all outward appearances a seemingly incorrigible optimist? After all, it was Assad who informed the Wall Street Journal just this year that his was a “stable” country where, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, “people do not go into revolution.”

As it turns out, Assad was not quite as sanguine about his prospects as he pretended in his remarks to the press. Syria’s Intenet penetration is very high: eighty-eight percent. And although Assad made sure to shut down access in late January—the very day Mubarak did the same in Egypt—by then it was too late for them both. Moreover, in Syria the Internet did not stay down. As for Al Jazeera, which covers the mass demonstrations in Syria and other dictatorships pretty steadily, it claims its Syrian television penetration is at thirty-eight percent.

Thus, Syrian protestors saw clearly how an assortment of Muslim tyrants tottered or fell, giving them confidence that their own regime might not be so inviolate or impenetrable.

This time around, it wasn’t specific cables, either to or from Washington, that fed popular discontent. From Julian Assange’s treasure trove, there were only mild revelations concerning Syria, none of them startling. On September 6, 2007, for instance, Israel destroyed a secret nuclear reactor in that country, which had been built with the help of North Korea, according to a cable written by Condoleezza Rice. You can bet the Syrians knew this already—because everyone else did. It wasn’t the kind of news that would prompt mass uprisings.

Nor was there a sudden realization that Assad was a tyrant. Despite his denials, he was almost certainly responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. He has described certain Arab leaders, who disparage Hezbollah, as “half-men.” His police routinely torture and kill political opponents. His people knew who he was.

But what was new was the discovery among Syrians that governments could be brought down. Certainly it was new to Assad as well. For the first time, he was on the receiving end of riots so massive and impossible to control that they demanded, in his view, a steady barrage of retaliation in the forms of live ammunition and tear gas.

Assad’s perplexity is understandable. It could even be argued that the Syrian president comes by his ruthlessness naturally: Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian president’s late father and predecessor, was even more violently repressive than his younger son, ordering a notorious 1982 massacre against the rebellious Sunni community of Hama that resulted in as many as thirty thousand civilian deaths. (Some put the number as high as eighty thousand.) Use of hydrogen cyanide was also reported, although never wholly substantiated.

In other words, there’s no deviation from the traditionally brutal regime norm in the Syria of today; certainly nothing much that separates it from the regime brutality of yesterday. Except for WikiLeaks.

By mid-May, up to eight hundred and fifty Syrians had been killed in the crackdown, according to the United Nations. Among those arrested: human rights organizers and health-care professionals. Protestors had set fire to party offices in an assortment of Syrian cities. A statue of Hafez al-Assad was struck down, an act unimaginable in years past. The posters of his son, the reigning president, were torn to shreds.

And back in Tunisa, where it all began, Pasha, the pampered tiger of the Materi family, was killed and skinned by rioting citizens. Video of its bloody corpse, captured for all eternity on a mobile phone, was then uploaded onto YouTube.


Judy Bachrach is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and weekly blogger for World Affairs.

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