Bradley Manning’s sentencing hearing is under way in Fort Meade, MD, and as my thoughts are with the brave private, I wanted to review an assertion that Michael Ratner made last week: Manning’s leaks “actually sparked the Arab spring.”
The claim has legendary status. This Welsh play has a line in it saying Bradley Manning caused the Arab Spring, a view echoed by this libertarian website. Julian Assange played up the claim in a parody of the MasterCard ad that featured Assange watching images of the Egyptian revolution on television–
Watching the world change as a result of your work? Priceless.
–leading The New York Times to question the assertion.
I’m on Ratner’s side here. As my headline on his comments said last week, “Manning helped start the Arab Spring.” Here’s the case.
The Arab Spring began with events in December 2010 and January-February 2011: notably the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruitseller on Dec. 17, 2010; the fleeing of the Tunisian president less than a month later; the January 25 movement in Egypt; and Mubarak’s resignation in February.
According to PBS, starting in November 2010, Wikileaks released ten Tunisian cables written between 2006-2009 by the State Department that documented widespread corruption in the government of President Zine al-Abadine Ben Ali.
PBS reported that these cables were widely available in Tunisia, and though the corruption wasn’t news to the Tunisians, the bluntness of the analysis was.
Some of the memos, which first appeared in November, were widely available in Tunisia after the WikiLeaks document dump, according to regional experts. They were translated and disseminated through private websites and social networking sites.
One overarching theme of the cables: corruption. Many refer to Ben Ali’s family as “The Family,” which stood above the law and ruled the country without any control or restraint from the outside. Nepotism extended to the family of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila, whose numerous siblings occupied critical government position or were the owners of media, airlines, assembly plants and distribution rights, according to one cable sent to Washington from Tunis in 2008.
I wasn’t able to find cables from November 2010. At the Guardian site, I see two Tunisian cables from December 7, 2010. Here’s part of one, written by a US Embassy official:
Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities…. The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. …corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.
A second cable documented the lavish lifestyle of the president’s son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi, including the fact that he owned a pet tiger that eats four chickens a day.
On December 7, the Guardian reported that Tunisia sought to block a cable documenting “hatred” of the Tunisian first lady from entering Tunisian internet traffic after a Lebanese site picked it up. But remember that PBS says that many of those cables were available in Tunisia.
Of course, it is impossible for me to establish whether the man whom everyone credits with starting the Arab Spring, the noble fruitseller Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in a provincial city, read those cables. But they were widely available when Bouazizi lit himself on fire on December 17, 2010. He died January 4, 2011.
President Ben Ali fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011.
A Times account two days before he fled said that Tunisian demonstrators were particularly enraged by the Wikileaks documents:
Protesters seemed to direct much of their anger at the great wealth and lavish life of President Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, and their extended family, most notably their son-in-law, the billionaire businessman Mohamed Sakher El Materi.
A gracious dinner at Mr. Materi’s home was detailed in a cable from the American ambassador to Tunisia that was released by the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks and fueled at least some of the outrage: a beachfront compound decorated with Roman artifacts; ice cream and frozen yogurt flown from St.-Tropez, France; a Bangladeshi butler and South African nanny; and a pet tiger in a cage.
A day after that, Sami Ben Hassine wrote a piece for the Guardian on youth rising up in Tunisia, and said that Tunisian consciousness was changed by the document release:
[Pre Wikileaks] The police are afraid: if you tell them you’re close to Ben Ali all doors open, hotels offer their best rooms, parking becomes free, traffic laws disappear.
The internet is blocked, and censored pages are referred to as pages “not found” – as if they had never existed…..
The corruption, the bribes – we simply want to leave….
And for the first time, we see the opportunity to rebel, to take revenge on the “royal” family who has taken everything, to overturn the established order that has accompanied our youth.
Ben Hassine’s assignment of a catalyst role to Wikileaks led Andrew Sullivan to write:
There seems little doubt that the Wikileaks-released cable describing the opulence of now former president Ben Ali’s lifestyle played a key part in bringing him down.
I’m just scratching the surface here, from a long ways off. I call this evidence because that’s what it is: visible. The ultimate question here is what was on the minds of Tunisians when they rose up. You’d think that our mainstream media would be investigating that question, right now, while the future of a courageous, independent, brave, slight, sensitive, thoughtful, mature Oklahoman private who believed the people have a right to know– including the people of Tunisia– hangs in the balance and the government seeks to demonize him.
But I’ve seen enough to say: Bradley Manning helped start the Arab Spring.