What’s WikiLeaks Got to Do With It?

Is WikiLeaks responsible for revolution in the Middle East?

How one reacts to this question, much less how they answer it, depends in part on how they feel about the organization, which is in the process of releasing tens of thousands of classified U.S. State Department cables, much of which have confirmed embarrassing tales of corruption, violence and betrayal among Middle Eastern despots.

This includes the governments in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia – the last of which was run out with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 15, following a popular uprising in the capital city of Tunis. Since then, anti-government protesters have paralyzed the dictatorship in Egypt, and have came out in force demanding reforms in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and now even Syria.

In all cases, their rulers have rushed to assuage “the mob” with concessions – in Jordan, the prime minister was replaced, in Algeria, the 19-year state of emergency may soon be lifted. Yemeni dictator Abdullah Ali Saleh has promised not to run for re-election in 2013. Meanwhile, Egypt’s embattled ruler Hosni Mubarak named a vice president for the first time, and promised not to run again in the next elections. On Saturday, it was announced that the top leadership in his ruling party was forced to resign.

Not surprisingly, the concessions have failed to placate protesters who have struggled through decades of oppression and poverty, and seem to be girding for a much longer and satisfying fight. And, having watched their counterparts in Tunisia remove not only the head of the snake but the body, too – including all of Ben Ali’s corrupt loyalists in the cabinet – they seem resigned to achieving no less.

To say that Tunisia inspired the phenomenal events we are seeing on the world stage today is a safe enough topic of discussion, as is the role of the Internet and “social media,” even Al Jazeera, in spreading dissent in the Arab world.

But suggesting that the steady stream of WikiLeaked cables, particularly those published on Dec. 7 addressing the mad corruption of Ben Ali (10 days before fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, immediately sparking the street protests in Tunis that led to the ouster of the president) had anything to do with any of it, is a much less welcome point of departure. Some have dismissed the idea outright, and are pretty peeved that it might have even been raised at all.

In fact, making these connections has only reignited hostility towards WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange all over again. Esquire‘s “senior features editor” Foster Kamer, who himself has a precious little bio squawk that declares he is “professionally summoned to the principal’s office/ Smiles so you don’t have to,” next to a photo of himself caught in a jocular moment with a woman’s shapely arm draped around his neck, calls Assange an “asshole” and a “prick” and the leaks themselves “gigantic shits on the global consciousness with little regard for integrity, aim, or anything, really, but the way they feed his own ego.”

“Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were well underway before WikiLeaks ever came about — or went mainstream, anyway — and neither were necessary catalysts so much as fuel on the fire of what had already been well-established by then,” says Kamer, who seems to confuse a suggestion that the cables had triggered unrest with some straw man assertion that Assange was the spear point of the revolt. “In America, where we’ve got the longest standing democracy in human civilization, our revolutionaries need to be more than well-groomed. They need to inspire, and they need to inspire with inspiring actions. Assange will never be an inspiring man, nor carry out inspiring action. Which is unfortunate, because he could.”

Nonetheless, Kamer seems to be confused, or underneath all of the bluster, afraid, to take a stand on the cables either way. He blames Assange’s “insufferable Australian diva,” for WikiLeaks “failure,” but then turns around and says the complete opposite of what he had said in the first part of the rambling blog post: “[WikiLeaks] a catalyst for revolution in what was already bordering on rogue-state governance? Sure. It especially didn’t help that the Tunisian government responded to the leaks by hunting down activists.”

Others, too, have gone straight to Assange, but perhaps without the same level verbosity. In a Jan. 17 story entitled “Tunisia’s WikiLeaks Revolution,” for instance, Russia Today said Assange “might have pulled the trigger on the dramatic developments (in Tunis).”

Elizabeth Dickinson might have been the first American writer to foray into real “WikiLeaks Revolution” territory, giving the organization credit, rather than admonishments, for its role in the Tunisian demonstrations, even before Ali was ousted. “We might also count Tunisia as the first time that WikiLeaks pushed people over the brink,” she said at ForeignPolicy.com on Jan. 13.

The content of the Tunisian cables, written by U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec in 2008 and 2009, indeed exposed an insufferable first family straight out of Hollywood central casting. But their daily crimes were all too real: a state-run mafia – AKA the Ali family and close associates – grinding the Tunisian people into poverty and political suppression through corruption and jack-booted security, living lavishly in stolen yachts and garish mansions, siphoning money from private schools, showing off their ill-gotten wealth to American ambassadors with ostentatious dinner parties, all while ordinary Tunisians were scrabbling in the streets under a 14 percent unemployment rate and suppressive, often arbitrarily administered laws. The same conditions, by the way, that apparently led Bouazizi to self-immolate in front of City Hall. He died in the hospital on Jan. 4.

Dickerson concludes:

“As in the recent so-called ‘Twitter Revolutions’ in Moldova and Iran, there was clearly lots wrong with Tunisia before Julian Assange ever got hold of the diplomatic cables. Rather, WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst: both a trigger and a tool for political outcry. Which is probably the best compliment one could give the whistle-blower site.”

In a soon to be released book about their role in publishing the WikiLeaks cables, Guardian writers David Leigh and Luke Harding admitted that while the reaction to the role of WikiLeaks in general has been “polarizing,” one cannot dismiss its influence among the Tunisian street demonstrators.

“There was, from the start, a metropolitan yawn from bien-pensants who felt they knew it all,” they wrote about the first cables released on Nov. 28. “According to this critique, the disclosures stated the obvious, and amounted to no more than ‘humdrum diplomatic pillow talk’ (this was from the London Review of Books).”

However, they added, within hours of publishing the cables, The Guardian started “receiving a steady stream of requests from editors and journalists from around the world wanting to know what the cables revealed about their own countries and rulers. It was easier to call the revelations unstartling, dull even, if one lived in western Europe rather than Belarus, Tunisia or in any other oppressive regime.”

In other words, cables revealing state corruption and injustice in places like Tunisia and anywhere else where the Internet and other access to information is restricted, can be a tremendous shock, and then a great motivator. Their contents confirm people’s worst fears. They shame. In the case of Tunisia, the writers argue, there was “a genuinely extraordinary WikiLeaks effect.”

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, author of the Crossing the Crescent blog, agrees. “I think the WikiLeak releases played some role, but it may be premature to say that it was the spark that lit the tinder,” he said, noting that Bouazizi’s death was much more critical in that regard.

However, he told Antiwar.com, “the WikiLeak releases laid bare the corruption and venality of Arab regimes. While most Arabs doubtless suspected all this, there is a vast difference between suspecting something that is officially suppressed for years and seeing it confirmed in a single instant in front of the whole world. One is a humiliation; the other is humiliation mixed with affirmation – a combination that helped provide the confidence to revolt.”

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch seemed to agree with the adage that Tunisians “didn’t need American diplomats to tell them how bad their government is,” but argued that “the cables did have an impact.”

From ForeignPolicy.com:

“The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world – and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.”

Of course no one wants to be called out as a novice when it comes to Middle Eastern history (which frankly, most of us are), nor accused of bypassing years of local grievances and complex political dynamics in order to find a smoking gun among cables released less than six weeks ago. In fact, even writers sympathetic to WikiLeaks have been cautious in putting too much stock in its role.

“The Wikis have contributed only to the extent of those who follow English-language media or watch al-Jazeera, Arabic or English. That is, Generation Y and environs,” said Asia Times writer Pepe Escobar in a recent email exchange. “In Egypt’s state-controlled media, from Al-Ahram downwards, WikiLeaks practically don’t play. In Egypt especially, this groundswell against the regime had been building up for a few years.”

This is most certainly true, but influence is so hard to measure, and it’s nearly impossible tease out the myriad dynamics from such a distance. Here is what we know for sure: that “tech-savvy youth” fed up by the brutality of the corrupt Egyptian police forces, had first planned the protests in Egypt, largely in reaction to the death of Kaled Said, 24, who allegedly died at the hands of police in June. Critics didn’t buy the story that he had died from swallowing contraband drugs to elude authorities, instead they have circulated photos of his battered body and his teeth broken from suspected police beatings. Facebook and Twitter were utilized to plan a demonstration on “national police day” in Cairo on Jan. 25, but things took on an entirely new dimension after the Tunisian revolt, which may or may not have been encouraged by the revelations in the WikiLeaks cables.

The Egyptian youth “saw a dictator step down,” Rania Al-Malky, editor of Daily News Egypt, told USA Today. “Everybody was emboldened.”

Three days after the Jan. 25 demonstrations, the Mubarak regime “recognized the role the Internet was playing” in stirring the pot, and shut it down. Consequently, it was the same day WikiLeaks dropped a series of unflattering cables on Egypt.

The State Department cables, dating back a year ago, detail “endemic and widespread” incidents of torture and abuse of political dissidents, criminal suspects and prisoners and “unfortunate bystanders” by President Mubarak’s infamous police. Furthermore, brutality “continues to be a pervasive, daily occurrence in GOE (Government of Egypt) detention centers,” and is hidden from view for fear of bad press. Again, the cables confirm everything everyone knows, but this new ammunition could not have been lost on the young protesters gathering for the biggest demonstrations in Tahrir Square in recent memory.

Just think of the potential impact similar revelations have had on the long suffering in other Arab countries on the seeming brink of revolution. In Yemen, WikiLeaks has provided plenty of fodder regarding President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for 30 years and has apparently found himself quite a post- 9/11 niche, extracting $155 million in military aid from the U.S. in exchange for his cooperation in the Global War on Terror, according to cables released since November.

According to a lengthy piece by Tariq Ali for the London Review of Books last March, a fifth of the money Saleh typically gets from the U.S. will go to weaponry and much of the rest will go to Saleh and his cronies, and some of it into the pockets of the military high command. “What’s left will be fought over by the bosses of different regions.” In the meantime, over 45 percent of the country lives on less than two U.S. dollars a day.

Meanwhile, the “cooperation” pledged to the U.S. in return apparently included giving the U.S. military permission to launch air strikes in his country, the truth of which was not fully revealed (although long suspected) until it came out in a published cable on Nov. 28.

“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh was reported to have said to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the region.

On Thursday, some 20,000 Yemeni gathered in peaceful protest in what was called a “Day of Rage” against economic conditions, political oppression and corruption. They were apparently undeterred by Saleh’s earlier announcement that he would not seek re-election in 2013, and instead called for “regime change” in the nation’s capital of Sanaa, according to news reports last week.

Meanwhile, the unrest spread to Jordan, where thousands of protesters – reportedly inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt – hit the streets last week in Amman and several other cities, decrying the unemployment, rising prices, corruption and lack of political power under the monarchy.

The demonstrations prompted King Abdullah II to fire the prime minister and replace him with Marouf Bakhit, in order to engage in “practical, swift and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process, in line with the king’s vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.” The opposition isn’t buying this concession, however, saying Bakhit is responsible for much of the corruption. The people, according to reports, are looking for more far-reaching reforms.

Unlike Tunisia, there wasn’t a trove of ugly WikiLeaked exposures adding to the mix in Jordan. However, a secret diplomatic cable released on Feb. 4 might make the opposition’s case stronger, as it indicates that King Abdullah never had any intention of reforming the government in the first place.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations in Tunisia are said to have inspired serious, often violent protests in nearby Algeria. Riots and street skirmishes between young Algerians angry with rising prices, joblessness and the state security forces have been going on for months, but have become more organized since the Tunisia uprising began in late December, say reports.

A major protest is planned for Feb. 12 in Algiers. As a concession, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift the 19-year state of emergency banning street protests – but such demonstrations will still be prohibited in the capital city, setting up an inevitable clash at the end of the week.

As with Jordan, U.S. State Department cables that address Algeria mainly pad the evidence of the failed conditions prompting its young men to revolt, like this 2008 cable that describes in great detail the harraga, or boatloads of young men, so desperate to leave the country that they risk their lives again and again on the high seas to escape.

Simply put, if Twitter and Facebook can be held up as tools of revolution, isn’t there a way to discuss the significance of WikiLeaks without drawing the ire of the old media graybeards and Assange haters? The release of this much information on a world hungry for reform and self-determination is unprecedented. So might be what is happening right before our own eyes.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.