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Julian Assange: The man who came to dinner, the man who saved Egypt

The WikiLeaks boss appears to take credit for the Egyptian revolution in a fundraising ad. He also reflects on his time in Miss Egypt's home.

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But Assange says he garnered deep insights into Egyptian society while in the country then. "At that time you didn’t feel in most areas of Cairo the presence of dictatorship. In fact if you look out on the streets, men go to work, they go to the cafes to have sheesha in the afternoon... in fact, the economic basis and the technological basis to Cairo seemed pretty much the same as London, if you compare it to Australian aboriginals."

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I'm not sure I understand his comment on Australian aboriginals, but the fact that he didn't "feel the presence of the dictatorship" is, well, odd, particularly for someone interested in revolutionary movements. In 2006 and 2007, the government was in the midst of a massive crackdown on Egypt's nascent democracy movement. It was jailing political opponents at a clip not seen in decades, and was jailing and torturing online activists who were using their blogs to post videos and details of police abuses.

(Here's a story of mine from May 2007: Egypt targets web-savvy opponents; and here's one from that September, Egypt extends crackdown to press. In the second piece, I wrote: "The jail terms for Mr. Eissa and three other antigovernment journalists are the latest in a cascade of repressive measures by the Egyptian security state in the past year seemingly designed to tighten the government's control as speculation grows over who will succeed President Mubarak.")

Yes, it's true that people were going to work and living their lives in those days. But that's how it is in most dictatorships, for most of the people, most of the time. But even in one of those pleasant sheesha cafes, you didn't have to work hard to feel the dictatorship. All you had to do was ask a political question to have the jovial stranger sitting next to you go quiet and dart his eyes nervously about the room, to see who might be eavesdropping.

In hindsight, the crucial groundwork for the Egyptian revolution was being laid in those days, the whole country well aware that the aging Mubarak couldn't hang on forever. The local press wrote about this, particularly the emerging online citizen journalists. The foreign press wrote about this on an almost daily basis. The US State Department acknowledged the deteriorating situation in its annual human rights report. Yet Assange saw none of this.

He said Saturday that Egypt's roughly 20,000 political prisoners that year "could gain no traction in the Western press. And yet others, such as in Iran, we hear about all the time. It’s very interesting that Egypt was perceived to be a strong ally of Israel and a strong ally of the United States in that region, so all the human rights abuses, political abuses that were occurring every day in Egypt simply did not get traction."

I'm certainly not one to let the press off the hook for its failures of emphasis, or the greater ease with which the abuses of regimes hostile to the US – rather than those deemed friendly – get in to the US press. But his statement is simply not factually true. Those stories got a lot of traction (what that traction was worth, is another thing. I generally think the importance of international press coverage lies at the margins, perhaps nudging the attitudes of Western policy makers, but that 95 percent of what matters is done by the people of a country seeking change).

So here's my own Mastercard take: "Hundreds of thousands risking their lives to face down a tyrant? Expensive. Taking credit for it from a London mansion? Cheap."

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