On 7 December 2010, Tunisian despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime blocked Internet access to the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar for publishing a US embassy cable which painted the dictator, his wife and her family in a deeply unflattering light. In the July 2009 cable, US ambassador Robert Godec had accused Ben Ali’s regime of having ‘lost touch with the Tunisian people…[tolerating] no advice or criticism whether domestic or international’, and of increasingly relying ‘on the police for control and focus on preserving power’. The cable mentioned the growing ‘corruption in the inner circle’, particularly around first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family, whom it said the Tunisians ‘intensely dislike, even hate’. It finally concluded that ‘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’.
Ten days later in Sidi Bouzid, 26-year-old street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi immolated himself in front of the local municipality building after his vegetable cart was confiscated by Faida Hamdi, a female municipal official who had then slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. Anguished friends and sympathisers soon took to the streets to protest, and YouTube, Facebook and Twitter helped spread the fire further—the long deferred anger of the Tunisians had finally erupted. On 4 January 2011, when Bouazizi succumbed to his wounds, the 5,000 mourners at his funeral were heard chanting, ‘Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep’. Ten days later, as the protests reached a crescendo, Ben Ali and his wife hoarded their loot and decamped to Saudi Arabia. Some suggested that Wikileaks had drawn first blood.
However, neither Bouazizi’s death nor Wikileaks’ revelations about the ruling clique’s rampant corruption would by themselves have triggered a revolution were it not for the vast pool of rage that was already bubbling. Dwindling opportunities for the masses juxtaposed with the ‘great wealth and excess’ of the presidential family had generated an explosive atmosphere waiting for a spark. A growing number of Tunisia’s educated youth languished in hopeless unemployment, yet the embassy cable revealed that Ben Ali’s son-in-law Mohamed Sakher El Materi, was serving dinners ‘with ice cream and frozen yoghurt brought in by private plane from St Tropez’ and holding for a pet ‘a large tiger, named Pasha, living in a cage, which consumes four chickens a day’. Something had to give—and along came Wikileaks and Bouazizi.
Books and films mentioned in this review
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, InsideWikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most DangerousWebsite. Jonathan Cape, 2011, pp 304, £9.99.
David Leigh and Luke Harding. WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. Guardian Books, 2011, pp. 352, £9.99.
Micah Sifry, Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency. Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 176, £9.99.
Isikoff, Michael, and David Corn. Hubris:The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. Reprint. Three Rivers Press (CA), 2007, pp. 496, £9.23.
‘Wikisecrets’, PBS Frontline, May 2011.
‘Inside Wikileaks’, Journeyman Pictures, December 2010.
‘Information Wars’, Al-Jazeera Empire (Panel discussion), February 2011.
‘Wikileaks: Why it matters? Why it Doesn’t?’ Real News Network (Panel discussion), January 2011.
‘WikiRebels’, SVT Television (Sweden), December 2010.