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The evidence that Bradley Manning helped start the Arab Spring

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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 then, WikiLeaks reveals what everyone was whispering. And then, a young man immolates himself. And then, 20 Tunisians are killed in one day.

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.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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9 Responses

  1. Krauss on August 6, 2013, 12:51 pm

    And even if he didn’t, the “trial” against him now is a big fucking farce and a blot on the U.S. “justice” system.

    Also, this panicked article from the Forward will play to your sensibilities, Phil:

    The Forward is now concern-trolling about the return of the “Arabists”.
    Remember, a “liberal” paper. Could’ve been written by a neocon.

  2. Citizen on August 6, 2013, 4:13 pm

    Oh perish the thought, a return of the “Arabists.”
    We Americans much prefer continued rule over us by the Zionists and their neocon aids.

  3. HemiFaulk on August 6, 2013, 6:09 pm

    Some theorize that these peoples are motivated by a desire to raise their standard of living. Upon being exposed to images of lifestyles of more fortunate people, seeing the advantages of governments run by the people for the people, realizing the hopelessness of their plight, minds are yearning for new ideas, improvements, freedom from religion and\or freedom from religious status quo ante bellum. What war? What about women?

    Penny-ante stuff so far folks, including our ?efforts? in various locales. Abandoning embassies? So sorry Mom Etc but this is the result of idiocy by those who were elected to protect and serve us. Hemi already feels guilty but Damnit folks this is Camel Toe Diplomacy in all its glory. The moose got loose in Benghazi, hear them mews in the pews, oh man this ain’t Mountain Dew, and we have had enough.

    “Dr. Enuf was reported to have several therapeutic effects, including the easing of stomach pains, relief from hangovers and a clearing of the mind.”

    Wreckage of the past bar none personified, can I get a witness. If I was a democrat I could use the B word and they would say play that funky music white\black\hip hop boy. Media bias Hemi, oh no way ms Snitchell.

    I know its strange but on my left is a book called Colder Than Hell by Joseph Owen. Yes it’s a bit old, but it is an accurate account of ”one of the most horrific battles ever waged.” Korea? Huh? Lunch menu? No folks, its about pain and suffering for what you believe in, sacrifice in this particular tract, and perhaps we bridge too far East and West…

    Bradley sadly is not worthy of fading away. Just because its on a computer does not give him carte blanche to modernize the kitchen… Why? Its not his kitchen, its not his choice, and really this reminds me of… Nothing from the past, thats for sure, perhaps I will see this topic differently soon enoiu

  4. lysias on August 6, 2013, 6:49 pm

    I think a lot of the reason for the over-the-top reaction of the U.S. government to Wikileaks and Manning has been that it was demanded by Saudi Arabia and the other Arab monarchies, who were spooked by the Arab Spring.

  5. maggielorraine on August 6, 2013, 7:12 pm

    Bradley Manning’s courage and accomplishment aside, do any of you not find it completely repugnant to try to credit the uprising of millions of brown people struggling under oppression to one white American guy? This reeks of white messiah. I’m not arguing that wikileaks, and by extension, Manning, didn’t play a role. But this:

    “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.”

    This is ridiculous. Really, Phil? “I can’t prove that Mohamed Bouazizi read the cables, but he might have,” as if he needed to in order to have the courage or motivation to set himself on fire, as if the entire Middle East were just waiting for Manning and Assange to enlighten them about their own rulers. Insulting.

    And Ratner’s comment that manning “actually sparked the Arab spring” is even worse. Talk about overstating your case. How about us white people stop trying to lay claim to everything? Have some damn respect.

    There is an argument to be made about the role of information, including wikileaks, in the Arab spring. But in this overstatement, or more importantly focusing on Manning’s role in the Arab Spring at all, you are doing what all colonizers have done to the Middle East -placing whiteness at its center. It’s a shameful topic to be obsessed with.

    • miriam6 on August 7, 2013, 6:07 am

      MaggieLorraine @ ;

      What a brilliant rebuke to Weiss’s nonsensical claims about the Arab Spring.

      I couldn’t agree more.

    • DaveS on August 7, 2013, 10:32 am

      Maggie, I think you make an excellent point, but it is misplaced in this instance. If Phil were answering the question “Who is responsible for the Arab spring?,” Bradley Manning would be an awful answer for the reasons you mentioned. But he is answering the question “Were Bradley Manning’s actions helpful or harmful?” Phil, and Ratner, are defending his actions, and arguing against his punishment. That makes a world of difference. The argument is that Manning had a positive effect on the world, not that the darker-skinned peoples needed inspiration from the white man.

    • Chu on August 7, 2013, 11:43 am

      The title says manning helped start the Arab spring.

      I can’t speak for white or brown people, but I think that Manning and Assange were contributors to the factors that started the Arab Spring. Certainly Bouazizi was the match that started it all, but World World I was predicated on a multitude of factors before the archduke’s assassination.

    • miriam6 on August 9, 2013, 12:34 am

      Philip Weiss foolishly chooses to rest his case on the basis of just one silly narcissistic opinion piece and one silly blog by a self absorbed inhabitant of the western blogosphere …


      Not Twitter, Not WikiLeaks: A Human Revolution |
      Jillian C. York

      Beginning this afternoon, shortly after (former) president Ben Ali fled Tunisia, I started getting calls about the effect of social media on the Tunisian uprising.
      I answered a few questions, mostly deferring reporters to friends in Tunisia for their side of the story, and then settled in for the night…only to find rantings and ravings about Tunisia’s “Twitter revolution” and “WikiLeaks revolution” blowing up the airwaves.
      By all Tunisian accounts, WikiLeaks had little–if anything–to do with the protests; rather, the protests were spurred by unemployment and economic woes.  Furthermore, Tunisians have been documenting abuses by the Ben Ali regime and the first family for years

      Tunisians don’t need advice from the Twittering classes

      The inspiring uprising springs from people’s aspiration for real freedom, not from Western Wikileakers revealing ‘the truth’ to Africans.

      There is a strong streak of paternalism in this view of the fury in Tunisia. This can be seen most clearly in the labelling of the uprising as ‘the world’s first Wikileaks revolution’. Some claim that ‘the whistleblower website played a major role in stirring up public anger against Ben Ali’s corruption’, by publishing internal US cables that compared Ben Ali and his siblings to the mafia. Even the much-respected Foreign Policy website says Wikileaks was ‘a trigger and a tool for political outcry’ in Tunisia. The idea that Tunisians needed St Julian of Assange to unveil to them the corrupt, undemocratic shenanigans of their own rulers is bizarre.
      As one more critical account

      points out, ‘Tunisians have been documenting abuses by the Ben Ali regime and the first family for years’.
      Various civil society groups and political opposition movements were compiling reports on Ben Ali, and circulating them in the face of often draconian censorship, while Assange was still at a start-up company and writing demented documents about evil corporatist governments mind-controlling the masses.
      The idea that this was a ‘Wikileaks revolution’, an uprising brought about by a revelation of the truth by wise men in the West, is more than just another example of media self-obsession and self-congratulation – it is an updated version of the White Man’s Burden.
      This is the White Wikileakers’ Burden, the notion that it falls to media-savvy folk over here to open the eyes and energise the hearts of enslaved brown people over there.
      Tunisian authoritarianism was backed for years by Western governments as part of the fantasy politics of saving the world from African chaos and Islamic fundamentalism – and now a Tunisian uprising is depicted as simply a physical extension of the fantasy politics of bedroom-based bloggers and leakers who seem to believe they can liberate people at the push of a button. The people of Tunisia come out of this uprising well; Western politicians and observers do not.

      In this article the same writer attributes the underpinning of the Arab revolution to three main causes ;

      (not one of them Western social media..)

      The ending of the playing of the Palestine card

      The exhaustion of the regimes

      The crisis of American Imperial clout

      The Egyptian uprising: ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?

      Those two questions are torturing observers, who are so obsessed with the mechanics of the revolt that they have missed its historic importance.

      The Egyptian uprising: ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?

      There are two questions about the Arab uprisings that are giving sleepless nights to Western observers: ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?’
      The revolts seem to have come from nowhere, and appear capable of going anywhere.
      Seemingly out of the blue, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Jordan and Yemen, demanding the ousting of corrupt regimes.
      The suddenness and unpredictability of their uprisings has induced many a cold sweat in the West.
      But anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with history will know that uprisings are often sudden and frequently fail to fit neatly into the schedules drawn up by political analysts.

      ‘Revolution comes like a thief in the night’, said Marx.

      In their attempts to answer the burning questions of ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?’, much of the Western political and media elite has revealed both its anaemic skills of political analysis and also its fear of mass agitation for democracy.
      Their most common answer to ‘why now?’ is that new social media have allowed people in the Arab world to get together and express dissatisfaction.
      Incapable of grappling with the political underpinnings of this upheaval, observers instead fetishise the technical tools and virtual networks used by the protesters to communicate information

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