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.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen at the house where he is required to stay in, near Bungay, England, Wednesday, June 15, 2011.

Did Julian Assange cause the Egyptian revolution?

If his own public relations are to be believed, the answer is yes. Last week the WikiLeaks founder, who is currently fighting extradition to Sweden where he's being sought for questioning on a rape allegation, released an ironic online fundraising video parodying Mastercard's long-running ad campaign to make his case. (Adding insult to injury, he also announced he's suing Mastercard and Visa for cutting off payments to his operation.)

"Twenty secure phones to assist in staying anonymous? $5,000. Fighting legal cases across 5 countries? $1 million. Upkeep of servers in over 40 countries, $200,000. Donations lost due to banking blockade? $15 million. Added cost due to house arrest? $500,000," intones a voice-over, as footage pans around Mr. Assange's work area, presumably in the British mansion where he's been under house arrest.

Then the camera zooms in on laptop footage of the Jan. 28 clashes on Kasr al Nil Bridge in Cairo. There, unarmed demonstrators fought riot police to get across the bridge to Tahrir Square, and won. It was the moment when the world realized that Egypt's democracy protests were snowballing into the biggest challenge ever to Hosni Mubarak's rule. (This paragraph was edited long after posting. I'd originally thought it was the 6th of October Bridge. Helpful readers pointed out my error - here's the full footage that the Assange ad appears to have borrowed from.)

The camera pans up on Assange, looking like the cat who ate the canary. "Watching the world change as a result of your work? Priceless. There are some people that don’t like change. For everyone else, there’s WikiLeaks." The ad has been viewed 400,000 times so far.

The problem with the ad's climactic assertion, of course, is that it isn't true.

The Egyptian revolution came after a decade of bubbling protest, of political organization at great cost and risk to the few who got involved. The Egyptian left had spent years trying to create a strong independent labor movement (independent unions were outlawed under Mr. Mubarak).

Others spent years trying to build bridges between secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking to find common cause against Mubarak. And the blossoming of online blogs and later social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter had been taken to with gusto by Egypt's young revolutionaries. All of this provided the impetus for the mass protests that took Mubarak down, both in street savvy and online know-how.

To many of these activists, ascribing root credit to Assange or WikiLeaks in their revolutions is offensive. The claim first emerged after the Tunisian revolution ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and kicked off the so-called Arab Spring in January.

I didn't think it made much sense then, notwithstanding the assertions of Internet utopians. Monitor correspondent Kristen Chick spent weeks covering the Tunisian revolution, and she told me then that not a single person had mentioned WikiLeaks to her.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy told me the other day that he's spoken to some Tunisian activists who think the release of US diplomatic cables that showed the US was as aware of the Ben Ali family's corruption as everyone else emboldened protesters. But he emphasized "some." (I've not been to Tunisia myself).

But Egypt was my patch for five years. While I don't claim any vast expertise, I found Assange's expansion on WikiLeaks role in the Arab uprisings over the weekend, particularly in the case of Egypt, stunningly obtuse. He spoke at the Frontline Club in London on Saturday, in a talk moderated by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman between Assange and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

Asked what role Wikileaks had played, Assange said that "it's difficult to disentangle" and then quickly added "I lived in Egypt during 2007, so I’m familiar with the Mubarak regime and the tensions within the Egyptian environment."

He went on: "Actually, I was staying at that time... in Miss Egypt’s house, and Miss Egypt’s house – other than having paintings of Miss Egypt all throughout – was clustered right between the US Embassy and the British High Commission, with a van outside filled with 24 soldiers in front of my front door, so for the sort of work we were doing, this seemed to be the sort of ultimate cover if you’d like, right nested amongst this."

How long was he in Egypt? Erin Snider, an acquaintance currently finishing up her PhD on the political economy of Egypt, told me that Assange had stayed at the flat she shared with three other people (an early version of this post misspelled Erin's name). None of them were Miss Egypt, though the landlady was the mother of Miss Egypt, 2000. Erin recalls one photograph of the Egyptian beauty queen in the flat, not many.

Assange was invited by Erin's roommate, who met him at a conference in Kenya that year. But he and his entourage of five turned out to be such terrible house guests that they were kicked out after a week. Erin, who says she never saw any evidence that they were linking up with Egyptian activists, thinks they left Egypt soon after. As a reporter in Cairo at the time, I certainly never heard anything about Assange.

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."

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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