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  • Aryan Tulsyan


Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Several reasons have been cited for the spark of the Arab Spring, wiz, the series of pro-democratic uprisings in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region which were kicked off in 2010-2011, by the revolution in Tunisia. The immediate cause of the uprising was the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who had succumbed not to burn injuries, but to the systematic corruption and unemployment in Tunisia. The fire of unrest which sparked in Tunisia found its way to other MENA countries as well, leading to major uprisings in nations like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. It can be argued that the fuel carrying this fire was Julian Assange’s release of innumerable classified diplomatic cables in the form of WikiLeaks. Even though there are arguments de-emphasizing or embroidering the role of WikiLeaks in the Arab Spring, I am going to argue that WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst in the movement.

WikiLeaks’ cables legitimized the ideas of corruption floating in the MENA air by providing real-time, documented evidence released as proof of communication between diplomats. The cables did not give any new information to the people. The citizens were aware of the systematic corruption practiced by their rulers, but WikiLeaks showed them the extent to which these leaders were unscrupulous, by providing exact details of their corruption. With globalization, “the world has gone from being connected to hyper-connected", and the immediate uprising in Tunisia after Bouazizi’s death could be accredited to this hyper-connectivity. Tunisia had the highest percentage of Facebook users in the world, and due to the digital awareness of people, news regarding the uprisings, and the information revealed from the cables spread like wildfire, thereby speeding up the revolution.

First, it is imperative to understand what exactly was disclosed in the cables released. While the cables on Tunisia revealed the prominence of dictatorship and corruption, Egyptian cables featured extensive human rights violations. Cable 08TUNIS679_a details the corruption, nepotism, and the causes of unemployment in Tunisia. They disclosed the cable used by the American Ambassador in Tunisia, Robert Godec, to convey to the US the immense wealth possessed by the Ben Ali family in the form of invaluable riches and an extravagant lifestyle. Specific details about the Tunisian First Lady’s sources of profits from shady land deals were also leaked by them. Cables from the American Embassy also categorized the Ben Ali family as ‘quasi-mafia’. WikiLeaks cables showed how non-performing loans constituted 19% of all loans, and most of these were held by either the family or by businessmen with ties to the regime.

Assange had explained in an interview the way in which WikiLeaks was providing a voice to the voiceless. Since the US was a close ally of Egypt, the western press did not cover atrocities by Mubarak, and thus WikiLeaks revealed details about the violations by the regime to the Egyptians. Cable 09CA1R01447 documented the restrictions imposed by the Egyptian government on journalists, novelists, poets, and bloggers highlighting the lack of freedom of speech, and how Emergency Law provisions were used to curb the rights and movement of people and commit intellectual property theft against anti-Mubarak organizations. Other cables also showed how Shia detainees were mistreated, and Muslim Brotherhood members were arrested and tortured. Furthermore, a cable by Margaret Scobey, the American Ambassador in Egypt, quoted Mubarak who said that he would rather die in office than step down, which further showed to people the unreceptiveness of the government.

Bachrach details how MENA countries were affected by WikiLeaks. In Libya, WikiLeaks released a fresh set of excerpts detailing the spendthrift accounts of Qaddafi and his sons, Mutassim and Hannibal, and how they used their power to harass and hurt people. The key spark emerged with the arrest of Fathi Tarbal, a human-rights lawyer protesting against Qaddafi’s oppression. Qaddafi shut down all communications which further fueled the movement. WikiLeaks inflamed Bahrain’s movement by releasing cables detailing King Hamad’s torture of the Shia detainees through the Daily Telegraph. The movement in Yemen caught fire when communication between President Saleh and US General Petraeus was revealed, where Saleh admitted to lying about declarations of the use of bombs and drones. Furthermore, Saleh’s admission of intake of alcohol and violation of the Sharia uniformly disappointed the Yemeni population. Since most of these were revealed through the communication between American diplomats, the Arabs of MENA were deeply humiliated as judgments were passed by ‘Yankee Infidels’ on a Muslim nation’s conscious passivity.

Assange had also explained in an interview that WikiLeaks made people’s belief of corruption in their governments undeniable, and therefore giving them the belief that they could orchestrate a successful revolution. It made people believe that the views held by them were the views of the majority, and once the realization of common proponents resonated, people began taking to the streets. Protestors dealing with a history of systematic oppression and abuse were offered a source of external legitimacy by WikiLeaks. To the Syrians, WikiLeaks cables about Assad did not provide any new information, as people knew he was a tyrant. WikiLeaks’ contribution in Syria, as well as in other MENA countries, was the knowledge that their governments could be brought down. When these countries saw the success of revolutions in neighboring stronghold dictatorships, they were affirmed that they too could bring a change. It was a new discovery to both the Syrians as well as Assad, brought by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst in the Arab Spring by aiding in the diffusion of the uprisings across the MENA region. Diffusion is the process where an event in one country motivates the occurrence of the event in other countries, and an example of how such events are facilitated is refugee flows . Arab Spring experienced what is known as indirect diffusion through the process of the demonstration effect, through the transfer of strategies, ideas, and expectations about the behaviors of external actors and the chances of success. This transfer was initiated from Tunisia and was carried to other MENA countries it was discussed earlier, the MENA countries had a good percentage of their population exposed to the internet, and the spread of dissent could be accredited to technology as it taught people how to protest.

WikiLeaks aided in the diffusion of the protests, as the release of WikiLeaks cables denoted the popularity of the MENA countries and showed a simultaneous trend in these movements. The regional timeline of the MENA corresponded to the release of WikiLeaks cables about specific countries. Tunisia shared various grievances like unemployment and corruption with its MENA neighbors, and once the Tunisian revolution was in force, the idea that democratization could be possible without American intervention resonated throughout the Arab world. The timing of the beginning of the protests in Tunisia, followed by Egypt, was in line with the revelation of cables by WikiLeaks. The analysis of the cables shows that from December 2010 to January 2011, the popularity of Egypt in the cables rose, and that is exactly when the unrest in Egypt came to force. There was a shift in the popularity from Tunisia to Egypt, as the movement diffused to Egypt from Tunisia. This is a clear play of the demonstration effect, meaning that one state replicates the behavior of the other, brought into motion by the WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks also facilitated the Arab Spring by cutting off external ties of the dictatorial regimes governing the MENA countries. It inspired a Lebanese newspaper called Al Akhbar, which not only translated the WikiLeaks cables from English to Arabic, but also made revelations of their own. Since this was in Arabic, it was accessible to everyone, and this information was relayed to everyone using different tools like YouTube, satellite television and other electronic communication networks. France was an ally of some of the dictators of MENA, and once WikiLeaks revelations were translated into French by Le Monde the government came under pressure. Therefore, US and France were forced to withdraw their support from the dictatorial regimes. Realizing that Mubarak would no longer be in power, in order to continue diplomatic relations with the suspected new government of Egypt, the Obama administration withdrew its support from the Mubarak government in 2011. The US had a plan to put Omar Suleiman in power since Mubarak was no longer a plausible leader, and this too was brought down by WikiLeaks by release of cables detailing Suleiman’s personal torture of a few Canadians renditioned to Egypt. This served to be a huge win for the Egyptian protestors, and enabled them to choreograph a successful revolution.

Assange believed that the explicit details about the corruption of the Ben Ali family provided by WikiLeaks also instilled a belief in the minds of the Tunisian protestors that in the event of a struggle between “the Family” and the protestors, the American government would be inclined, rather compelled, to side with the latter. The United States had considerable influence over the MENA region prior to WikiLeaks revelations, but the cables opened up the exercise of US global power to democratic scrutiny. A regional supporter, of these dictatorial regimes, Saudi Arabia, also fell at the hands of the WikiLeaks. Although there was no change in control in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom was not able to come to the aid of its dictator allies. After the WikiLeaks revelations, they were forced to turn inwards and neutralize their domestical political issues, by providing concessions to their Shia population in order to suppress mass revolution. There was an apparent attack on the sanctity of Sharia Law and Saudi Arabia had to protect that. Therefore, many tyrannical powers dependent on Saudi Arabia fell under the hands of protestors.

The revelations through WikiLeaks cables also helped in the movement by inspiring non state actors such as Anonymous and Telecomix, and the formation of regional bodies such as the Tunileaks. It is important to look at the role of digital media complementing WikiLeaks to fully understand the role played by the latter in fueling the Arab Spring. Howard and Hussain give out the phases in a media led protest which help us analyze the role of WikiLeaks and digital media in fueling it. This includes the preparation phase, which includes activists finding each other through digital media, for example, the formation of the Facebook page titled “We Are All Khaled Said” named after the Egyptian man beaten to death by the Alexandria police. Then comes the ignition, where an event ignored by the state media is amplified through activists, like the WikiLeaks. Here, the role of Anonymous must be discussed, as Tunisian Anons not only spread out details contained within WikiLeaks cables, but also disseminated specific events such as the self-immolation of Bouazizi. These are followed by street protests and finally the international coverage, which was facilitated through international newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Speigel.

The governments of the MENA countries were fast enough to restrict access to the internet and prohibit people from being exposed to WikiLeaks revelations. Tunisia had blocked the Lebanese site Al Akhbar relaying WikiLeaks cables, and Assad and Mubarak shut down the internet completely in their countries. However, this was countered by a backlash from groups affiliated with the WikiLeaks, and an operation was launched by Anonymous called OpTunisia against government websites, and they helped in restoring internet connections and redirected official sites to sites relaying WikiLeaks cables. Exchanging proxies became a norm, and WikiLeaks became a source which countered pro regime propaganda. These events also led to the process of the normalization of communication of dissent. Recording opposition and transmitting it to others was not a common phenomenon before it was enabled by the WikiLeaks.

Authoritarian institutions render themselves more opaque when they try to push themselves into greater secrecy, and thus, become less effective in dealing with the changes in the environment. Qaddafi blamed the uprisings on diplomats and said that the revelations by WikiLeaks were ‘planted’ by ‘lying ambassadors’. The current President of the United States, and the then Vice President Joe Biden called Julian Assange a ‘high tech terrorist’, and Hillary Clinton attempted to undermine the credibility of WikiLeaks by claiming that the revolution was not inspired by WikiLeaks. Here we see how the governments tried to continue defending their stance and delegitimize WikiLeaks to restore their apparent reverence, but in turn, the people called their bluffs. In this way, WikiLeaks indirectly furthered the people away from their governments. Chomsky had explained in an interview that although the WikiLeaks revelations estimated that most Arab leaders considered Iran to be a threat to peace and stability in the MENA, 80% of their population saw Israel and the USA as main threats. This shows that Arab nations who were already distanced from their populations were further wedged by the WikiLeaks.

Assange compared the situation in the MENA countries in 2010 to drying wood which was ready to burn. WikiLeaks acted as a spark, as well as the fuel for this fire. Since the cables were mostly from American diplomats, they were considered to be more reliable. There were many issues pertaining to the Arab World which made them vulnerable to a revolution, like aging rulers, weakening of the regimes, and the decrease of intellectual management. A Tunisian claimed that they were aware of the corruption for years before WikiLeaks, but reading about the exact details by American diplomats triggered them and it became an immediate cause for uprisings. Therefore, the rapid growth of the unrest in the MENA region must be ascribed to WikiLeaks due to the reasons explained in the paper. WikiLeaks cables became a source of hope and legitimacy for the people, and they took inspiration from WikiLeaks, as well as from each other, to play out a successful democratic change in the Middle East-North Africa region.

Cover Image: Illinois Library

About the author: Aryan is a second-year student at Jindal Global Law School. Aryan is interested in the field of International Law and International Relations

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