Forget poverty, unemployment and decades of police brutality. Moammar Gadhafi knows what really led the Tunisian people to take to the streets: WikiLeaks.
The Libyan dictator argued in a televised speech this weekend that the anti-secrecy website had deliberately set out to overthrow his long-term ally, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, by publishing “information written by lying ambassadors in order to create chaos.”
Protesters run as police use tear gas after a demonstration against the Constitutional Democratic Party in Tunis, Tunisia, on Tuesday. Christophe Ena, AP
Gadhafi wasn’t the first person to suggest that Julian Assange’s site played a significant role in Ben Ali’s downfall. Last week, the journal Foreign Policy argued that WikiLeaks’ Dec. 7 release of secret diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis — which explained how Ben Ali’s extended family was looting the North African country and living in outrageous luxury — exposed ordinary Tunisians to the true nature of the regime and “pushed [them] over the brink.”
Political blogger Andrew Sullivan agreed, hailing the departure of Ben Ali on Friday as “a major, er, coup for WikiLeaks and the transparency it promotes.” AOL News and others also reported that the controversial site had helped fan the unrest, which sent Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia with his wife, Leila.
The problem with such arguments, though, is that they relegate ordinary Tunisians — at least 75 of whom were killed by security forces over the past month — to the role of bit players in their own uprising.
Gadhafi portrays them as pawns controlled by Western agents, a clear warning to Libyans that they shouldn’t trust unflattering cables about their leader. Sullivan and Foreign Policy, meanwhile, suggest ordinary Tunisians had to be awakened from their slumber by well-intentioned Westerners.
But Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based journalist and former North Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group, told AOL News that Tunisians didn’t need any encouragement from abroad to take to the streets.
“Tunisians didn’t overthrow Ben Ali because of WikiLeaks,” he said. “They overthrew him because he was in power for 23 years and they couldn’t stand it anymore. Tunisians were ready for this before those cables came out.
“Amrani notes that the spark for the protests came 11 days after the cables were released, when Mohamed Bouazizi – a 26-year-old computer science graduate — set himself on fire outside the governor’s office in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid. Police had confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart the previous day, saying he didn’t have the correct permit.
Some suspect the real reason was that Bouazizi, who died of his injuries on Jan. 4, failed to pay a bribe.
His suicide struck a chord with Tunisians. Like so many young people in this North African nation, which has a high rate of youth unemployment, the highly educated Bouazizi had been unable to find a decent job. He’d become a street vendor in order to survive, only to be humiliated and denied his only source of income by the regime’s notoriously brutal police force.
In the days after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, Tunisians staged demonstrations across the country, protesting over the lack of jobs, and the government’s corruption and record of economic mismanagement. Amrani admits that the WikiLeaks revelations, which citizens passed to each other via social networking sites like Facebook, may have “reinforced the anger people felt toward the ruling family, but a lot of people already knew they were very corrupt and had their fingers in every pie.”
But while WikiLeaks’ impact inside Tunisia may have been grossly overstated, the damning cables might have helped persuade Ben Ali’s Western sponsors, including the U.S. and France, to abandon their kleptocratic ally.
Maha Azzam, an expert on North Africa and the Middle East at London-based think tank Chatham House, told AOL News that the corruption exposed in the cables was so extreme and blatant that the West could no longer “turn a blind eye to the regime” or claim that “stability under Ben Ali is better than instability without him.”
“If we had the WikiLeaks releases without the protests,” Azzam said, “it would have been business as usual between the U.S., France and Ben Ali.”
However, she adds that the “protests were still the key” to the ex-president’s downfall.