Wikileaks: How the diplomatic cables sparked the 2011 Arab Revolutions

ZDNet's Wikileaks series: This post will unravel the consequences of the cables; predominantly the effects in North Africa and the Middle East.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

This week-long serialisation forms the vast part of my undergraduate dissertation: "An empirical analysis of Wikileaks, pre- and post- the 2010 diplomatic cables release". Media organisation or terrorist group; revolutionaries or journalistic evolutionists? This post will unravel the consequences of the cables; predominantly the effects in North Africa and the Middle East.

Shortly before the New Year, a series of small events predicated a chain reaction of events which would go on to topple entire governments and regimes -- changing the world power balance drastically.


Tunisia was first. In the space of the first three weeks into 2011, protests and demonstrations resonated across the capital, Tunis, and other major cities, leading to widespread violence, mass emigration across the Mediterranean into southern Europe, and ultimately the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after thirty years of rule.

However, even before the final days of Ben Ali's rule, protests had spread to neighbouring Algeria, Libya and Egypt, and over the Suez as far as Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

For the Tunisian people, who for some time had a modestly open access to the World Wide Web, they had appeared to have realised that the world around them - at least in diplomatic circles - had woken up to the regime that Tunisia was under.

A reporter with the Guardiandescribed that though UK and Tunisian relations continued as tensions mounted in the region, it was clear that the diplomatic cables had sparked a realisation with the Tunisian people that if the world knew and arguably empathised, then 'enough was enough'.

With a third of all Tunisians online, it was fitting that the news of the Wikileaks cables release spread quickly through mostly unmonitored and unfiltered social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. These 'viral' methods of communication and instant dissemination of information became one of the primary sources for the Tunisian people to organise protests, rallies and demonstrations.

Wide scale demonstrations in Tunisia had triggered further protests and civil unrest in neighbouring Egypt.

Effectively, the Egyptian people and other citizens in countries across the region saw that if their governments could topple and regimes end seemingly overnight, and then with mass protest power, so could theirs.

Egypt was also under a similar oppressive and repressive rule, with emergency laws and powers to be enacted against the citizen, who did not conform to the party political ideal. Not only this, there was widespread police brutality and electoral and governmental corruption.

Egypt still is a very much an 'online country', with many taking to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to air their views, with little or no fear of repercussions.

While on the most part the government repressed its people in the real, physical world, the online space was widely unmonitored, and a free slate for many to air their views and to become politically active and engaged.

For the leadership of Egypt, only when it became apparent that the Internet and social media were being used for a force against state civility and conformity did the government then restrict bandwidth and limit access to the Web.

Many had to resort to old-style technologies which are vastly out of date in the Western world, such as dial-up Internet access and fax machines to share messages and anti-government literature.

The use of social media was instrumental and widespread during the Egyptian and wider Arab uprising. As one activist tweeted:

"We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world."

Even if one were to enter into Wikipedia the term "Wikileaks revolution" and "Twitter revolution", it automatically points to the page of the "Tunisian Revolution".

One could interpret this as a gesture widely felt by many others, recognising that Wikileaks facilitated the social change in a country for which had seen decades of oppression.

The media extensively covered this affair and the connection between both Wikileaks and the Tunisian and subsequent falling of many Arab states, including Egypt.

One Norwegian legislator even nominated Wikileaks for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in holding governments, oppressive and otherwise, accountable for their actions.

It is widely believed that Wikileaks, as a result of the release of the U.S. diplomatic cables, which labelled Tunisia as a "risk" to long-term stability in the region, initially sparked the wide-spread protests, which catalysed demonstrations and public assemblies in neighbouring states.

Shortly after the release, the debate as to whether Wikileaks was a 'terrorist organisation' and those connected or contributing to the work of the organisation should be labelled 'enemies of the [United States]'.

Others in the media questioned the motives of those asking for Assange "to be hunted down like Osama bin Laden", implying not only that Assange is definitely a terrorist that harms government but that he should also be killed.

But others argued that Assange cannot be a terrorist or even close to for the very nature that by definition it is a loose and flexible term, often used for political propaganda and that the nature of Wikileaks' actions call into question wider fields of journalism, freedom of speech and freedom of expression - all of which are protected by both US and British law.

Though arguably it may be the work of a terrorist to bring down a government, no government has publicly acknowledged, let alone commended the work of Wikileaks for their direct or indirect influence in contributing to a chain reaction of events in the Middle East, which ousted political figures not necessarily seen as 'friendly' towards Western democracies, and certainly those who do not share the same political ideals as many developed countries in Europe and North America.

Had many 'unstable' and pre-modern countries in the Gulf states, not limited to those affected by the 2011 revolutions, taken a more open approach to politics and transparency, then the ramifications of potential political downfall may have not been so great in hindsight.

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