Tunisia: That 'WikiLeaks Revolution' meme

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia is being driven by flesh and blood and conditions on the ground, not because WikiLeaks 'revealed' to Tunisians the real face of a government they'd lived with their whole lives.

1720 ET

There's been a rather lot of, well, unsupported analysis on the internet seeking to attribute Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, which drove President Ben Ali from power yesteday, to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Uber blogger Andrew Sullivan writes: "This is a major, er, coup for Wikileaks and the transparency it promotes - especially against tyrants like Ben Ali." The theory goes that private US diplomatic cables from the Tunis embassy released via Wikileaks on December 7 revealed to Tunisians that Ben Ali was an authoritarian despot, that his family was supremely corrupt, and that life was crushingly hard for the Tunisian poor and unemployed, spurring them to take to the streets.

It goes without saying that Tunisians (thanks to the reader who pointed out my typos) were well aware of this and more, and that the spark for weeks of street protests and riots that rolled across Tunisia (and, indeed, are still rolling) was the suicide of a desperate young man in mid-December.

Exhibit A is a piece on the Foreign Policy website by Elizbeth Dickinson. She's careful to couch her claim by acknowledging that Tunisians understood the conditions they were living with, but yet ascribes an agency to the WikiLeak's cable that is, at best, both unproven and unsupported by what people on the ground in Tunis are saying.

"Tunisians didn't need any more reasons to protest when they took to the streets these past weeks -- food prices were rising, corruption was rampant, and unemployment was staggering. But we might also count Tunisia as the first time that WikiLeaks pushed people over the brink," Dickinson wrote.

Well, we might also ascribe what happened to the phases of the moon or to the recent revelation that astrology relies on really, really bad astronomy. Or we might not.

Ben Wedeman, probably the best TV reporter employed by an American channel (he works for CNN) when it comes to the Arab world, is in Tunis and had this to say about Ben Ali's stunning fall yesterday, the WikiLeaks theory, and the public fury that amounted to the first succesful Arab revolt in a long time: "No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It's all about unemployment, corruption, oppression." (Monitor correspondent Kristen Chick in Cairo, who's still trying to get a flight to Tunis, writes this afternoon that countries like Egypt and Jordan are looking on nervously at events in the Maghreb.)

The spark for the Tunisian uprising (I'm reluctant to call it a "revolution" since it certainly isn't clear, as Tunisians are kept inside tonight by a harshly enforced military curfew, that the established order will be replaced) was the spectacular self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid on December 18. Mr. Bouazizi, a 26-year-old computer science university graduate who couldn't find a job in his field and had been reduced to selling fruits and vegetables on the street, set himself on fire Dec. 18 after police confiscated his little stand. The official reason was that he didn't have a permit, but I'd bet the real reason was the he failed to pay a bribe.

Tunisia, like most Arab countries, has mounds of redtape standing in the way of businesses large and small trying to go legit, a legacy of Arab socialism that today largely serves as a pretense for cops and officials to informally extract money from everyone from tycoons to peddlers. When Bouazizi -- a perfect symbol of a generation of young Tunisians who've been well-educated by a system that couldn't provide them jobs -- died in hospital January 5, the rioting and protests that started in his town spread.

Modern communications technology writ large had a hand in all this -- the use of cell phones, blackberry and twitter all helped protesters organize. But a cable written by a US diplomat and released by WikiLeaks that contained no revelations for either Tunisians or people already interested in the country, is a highly unlikely vector of revolution. Ms. Dickinson writes that: "Of course, Tunisians didn't need anyone to tell them this. But the details noted in the cables -- for example, the fact that the first lady may have made massive profits off a private school -- stirred things up." Perhaps. But Leila Ben Ali, the president's wife, has been a hated figure in Tunisia for years, and she was well-known for taking the presidential jet to France for extravagant shopping trips.

I'm reminded of the fall of Soeharto in Indonesia in 1998. There, an economic collapse pushed millions into poverty and tens of thousands on to the street. After rioting in the capital, Jakarta, that targetted the businesses and homes of his friends and cronies, the security forces likewise withdrew support and his 30-year rule -- which had weathered plenty of past crises thanks to his iron control over the state -- was over.

The day after he fell, the structural reasons that drove him out were clear. But six months prior, no one could have predicted it. (The fall of Soeharto, by the way, came long before the founding of WikiLeaks. Ditto for 1979's stunning Islamic revolution in Iran.) Soeharto's wife, who went by Ibu Tien ("Mother Tien"), was widely derided on the Indonesian streets too. She was called (never in print or within earshot of state intelligence agents, of course) "Ibu Ten Percent" for her habit of demanding 10 percent of new business ventures in exchange for government approval (a habit she and her husband passed on to their children).

The question of why Bouazizi's act set the country on fire is of course a fascinating one. After all, the Ben Ali regime was as repressive six months ago or a year ago or five years ago as it was today. And while rising prices and a worsening unemployment situation fueled this fire, the picture was likewise pretty bad for folks like him years ago. The unrest itself got so bad that key members of the security forces withdrew support from Ben Ali, unwilling to do the dirty work of killing hundreds to end the protests and risk going down with him. But why now? That's something historians and political scientists will spend years working out.

The US diplomatic cables themselves are fascinating backgrounders on Tunisia, by the way. I reccomend starting with this one which emphasizes that Tunisians' already had a dim view of the first family's business activities. "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."

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