This article is part of the Digital Freedom and Control Project produced exclusively for the World Policy Journal by students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
By Shibani Mahtani
On Nov. 29 2010, the world was treated to an inside look at how America viewed their governments. WikiLeaks, in partnership with the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde, made available a deluge of secret diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies all over the world.
With regard to the Middle Eastern countries, the cables showed that U.S. diplomats were acknowledging the corruption of the countries’ leaders in private, even if they were unwilling to do so publicly. For people living under the region’s most oppressive regimes, the cables appeared to validate their dissent against their own governments.
Leaked documents from another source about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stirred even more outrage. In January Al Jazeera released a trove of secret documents detailing what some analysts considered overly generous concessions by the Palestinian Authority.
According to analysts and journalists, the Palestine Papers and the Wikileaks diplomatic cables were not determining factors in recent events, but may have contributed to the weakening of several hardline regimes in the Middle East.
In a July 2009 secret dispatch released by WikiLeaks, U.S. ambassador Robert Godec did not spare the criticism the regime of President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. “[Ben Ali] and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people,” Godec wrote. “They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power.”
He added, “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 month after the cable’s release, Tunisians took to the streets, rioting against rising unemployment and high food prices. They were the first Arab nation in a generation to oust their long-ruling dictator, which soon created a ripple of uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East.
The spark for the Tunisian revolution was 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire, but experts and analysts also heralded the events as the first “WikiLeaks revolution.” Writing in Foreign Policy in January, Elizabeth Dickinson argued that Tunisians did not need an American diplomat to tell them that their country was corrupt and a police state. Details from leaked cables, however, such as the allegation that the first lady may have profited from the building of a private school, stirred up pre-existing sentiments, she argued.
A young Tunisian known only by the pseudonym “Sam,” directly referenced WikiLeaks in an article written in January for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website. “We love our country and we want things to change, but there is no organized movement: the tribe is willing, but the leader is missing. The corruption, the bribes – we simply want to leave,” he wrote. “We go to France and forget, then come back for the holidays. Tunisia? It is … a giant Club Med.”
“And then, WikiLeaks reveals what everyone was whispering,” he continued. “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.”
The interaction between Wikileaks and the Tunisian uprisings took on other forms. The Ben Ali regime attempted to stifle all news and commentary on the documents, trying to limit the potential damage the leaks could cause. There was hardly any coverage on the documents in the local press.
On the Internet, a rhetorical war broke out between cyber-activist group Anonymous and the Tunisian government. The group, protecting WikiLeaks’ right to distribute the leaked cables, made headlines for attacking the servers of websites like Amazon and Paypal that blocked payments and access to WikiLeaks.
When the Tunisian government attempted to block the Gmail and Facebook accounts of some Tunisians who were using their accounts to voice criticism of the Tunisian government, Anonymous counterattacked, succeeding in bringing down eight government websites including those of the president, prime minister and the stock exchange. This became known as “OpTunisia,” and soon became another tool of political outcry that discredit the regime, and gave international support to dissenting Tunisians.
WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange was quick to claim that the leaked cables provided key information that helped opposition forces shape their strategies. “The Tunisian cables show clearly that if it came down to it, if it came down to a fight between the military on the one hand, and Ben Ali’s political regime on the other, the United States would probably support the military,” he said, speaking at Cambridge University in March. He believed that this caused neighboring Arab countries to reach a similar conclusion: that the United States would be more willing to support an uprising than prop up the dictatorships.
Others who have watched the Arab revolutions intensely over the past months are more skeptical of Assange’s claim. CNN’s Ben Wederman, who reported from Tunisia, said in a report in the midst of the uprising, “No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned Twitter, Facebook or WikiLeaks. It’s all about unemployment, corruption, oppression.”
Ben Murphy writing for the Christian Science Monitor, too, is doubtful that WikiLeaks had any revolutionary impact: “Modern communications technology writ large had a hand in all this… But a cable written by a U.S. 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.”
The Palestine Papers, however, had a more direct impact on the standing of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, according to analysts. When Al Jazeera released the documents, the relationship between the Palestinian negotiators and the Israeli government was laid bare for the world to see. The Palestinian Authority appeared weak and over-conciliatory, offering concessions they would never claimin public.
This dealt a huge blow to the already weakened Palestinian Authority and the peace process. While news coverage of the papers were somewhat overshadowed by the upheavals in Egypt, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned in embarrassment, and his unit, the Negotiations Support Unit was disbanded.
“Clearly this had very serious ramifications for the Palestinian leadership, who did not handle the crisis well,” said Khaled Elgindy, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, who served as an advisor to the NSU till 2009. He argued that the initial reaction of the Palestinian Authority, which was to deny that the papers were authentic, further eroded their credibility.
Sherine Tadros, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English who was based in Gaza when the story broke, recognized how this report affected the Palestinian Authority.
“At the press conference, [lead negotiator] Ahmed Qureia said the documents were fabricated. The Palestinian Authority moved on to personal attacks on Al Jazeera itself and the Qatari royal family. It went a step beyond politics,” she said. “It proved to be a mistake. They did not deal with the content of the documents or the negotiations, and came out in a very bad light.”
A poll conducted by the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency showed that 79 percent of people believed the documents were real and truthful, and a majority doubted the response of the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestine Papers included the revelation that Erekat had promised Israel the “biggest Yerushalayim in history,” conceding mostly Arab neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Muslim holy sites to Israel in negotiations around a two-state solution. The documents also revealed that the Palestinian Authority had effectively given up on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. President Mahmoud Abbas is quoted in the papers, saying: “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take or give millions, or indeed one million – that would be the end of Israel.”
Experts believe that while many of the statements in the leaked documents reflected views already accepted by many Palestinians, their leaders, afraid of public perception, had been hesitant to explicitly express such positions.
"It’s been an open secret for years, since Camp David, that the right of return is essentially impossible," said Paul Scham, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. “But very few Palestinian leaders will say that in public. They don’t want to break it to the Palestinian people, especially those in refugee camps, unless they have several other compromises [from Israel]."
Tadros said, however, that the impact of the paper’s release was definitely felt when she was reporting from Gaza. “Whether they were angry, surprised or not, I have rarely covered a story where every single person on the street – young, old, rich, poor – knew what the story was, and what we were talking about. There was definitely a lot of anger, because what the Palestinian Authority was negotiating was very personal to them.”
Last week, rival factions Hamas and Fatah made major steps towards reconciliation and announced that they are working towards a unity government. The Twittersphere and blogosphere exploded with comments, some shocked, some less so. While Tadros believes that the Palestinian Papers were not a major factor, she argues that it did contribute to a changed environment in which reconciliation was made possible.
“The Palestinian negotiators changed after the release of the papers, and they were not only focused on negotiating with Israel, but also Hamas,” she said. “It is part of the new, fresh start that we are seeing in the Middle East.”
Shibani Mahtani is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian and the Associated Press.