Wikileaks and…Tunisia

A few posts back, reflecting on the arguments swirling over the release by Wikileaks of the American diplomatic cables, I said that I couldn’t see any geopolitical situation which might have been changed by the appearance of the information. I’ve spotted one case which might (only might) be an example of a specific country being changed by the revelations.

President Ben Ali

The country is Tunisia, where anti-government demonstrations and riots have broken out in the last ten days. The events have not been widely reported, but are extremely unusual in a state held in a tight grip by an old-fashioned ex-military strongman, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. There’s a summary here (but the parallel with the fall of Romanian dictator Ceaucescu is implausible), more detail and rumours here and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni here. The picture on the Al Jazeera piece of the protesting Tunisian lawyers in their black gowns and white collar tabs doesn’t suggest that a violent revolution is under way.

Now recall that one of the diplomatic cables to get early attention was the one from the US Ambassador in Tunis which mentioned seeing the pet tiger kept by the President’s son-in-law (and possible successor) and glimpses of the son-in-law’s “over the top” lifestyle. In a less gossipy despatch a year ago the ambassador put Tunisia’s problems in a nutshell:

“President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. Extremism poses a continuing threat.”

Frank, raw information will have different effects in different political cultures and capitals. In countries where the gap between formal and informal information is very wide, the effect will be greatest. (More on the impact on Arab governments here). Tunisia is one such place: the printed press and television channels are under actual or effective government control. But there are now more ways of circulating information informally. So when a revelation hits these networks, it is redistributed very fast.

Is it fanciful to think that these quite ordinary diplomatic cables may have had an explosive effect in the confined information environment of an Arab dictatorship? What might look everyday social reporting and common sense analysis to anyone outside the country may seem very much more dramatic to anyone inside. Rumour and speculation are confirmed as fact: the Americans really do think that the regime is in trouble; an unprecedented glimpse into the luxurious private world of the President’s family. Within an hour of the cables being released an activist had set up Tunileaks to display the 17 cables dealing with the country. On one blog, users inside Tunisia were advised that if they wanted to send the link they need to use “circumvention tools”.

Of course, it’s impossible to prove cause and effect. Tunisian activists might say that they don’t need US diplomatic cables to tell them what’s happening in their own country, that bread and butter issues such as unemployment and food prices are behind the riots. The disturbances may not loosen the regime’s hold on power. But I wonder if we are not seeing the first signs – and I don’t think they will be the last in the Middle East – of political change effected by the hacker movement.

Update 30/12/10: an ex-foreign correspondent expert in Asia argued to me last night that the revelations in the US cables about China’s attitude to North Korea are liable to change a pivotal geopolitical situation. A cable revealed that a senior Chinese official had assured the Americans that Beijing would not object to the reunification of the two Koreas on South Korean terms. My friend argued that this would not have been known (even if suspected) by the North Koreans and would therefore change calculations in Pyongyang. Whether the change might be for the better or for the worse isn’t clear.

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