Revolution at the Speed of Light

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Surely, the upheavals going on in North Africa and the Middle East were not caused entirely by WikiLeaks/FaceBook/Twitter. But just as surely, their contributions cannot be denied. The role of the Internet in human events has just been bumped up a notch or ten. Only a fool would be tempted to predict where it will stop.

We may be seeing the birth pains of a half dozen or so less repressive governments, and each birth will be a reason to celebrate. Each country that puts its oppressive leaders out to pasture; each one where people become free to say what they think about their government without imprisonment, and worse, as the outcome; each one where elections are held with no jiggering of who gets to be on the ballot and which votes get counted – each of these will be a feather in the cap of those smart and brave enough to take advantage of what technology has wrought.

When the first WikiLeaks cable dispatches hit the fan, my intuition told me that all the calamity howling and heavy breathing coming out of the State Department had nothing to do with lives being endangered and everything to do with the embarrassment some of the revelations would cause in high places.

My view was more myopic than I’d like to admit. I saw snark and gossip and thought that was what had Hillary’s knickers in a twist. Her diplomats were caught in some rather undiplomatic positions.

I didn’t begin to take the whole thing seriously until rumblings in Tunisia caught my attention. Then I took the trouble to figure out how to search the WikiLeaks archive and I found what people in that country had found: confirmation that the US knew about the Tunisian government’s corruption, oppression, and outright theft, yet publicly, at least, turned away and let the status be quo. It seems the investment opportunities there wiped out any consideration of our country’s professed values.

For evidence of what the US administration knew and did nothing about, see CORRUPTION IN TUNISIA: WHAT’S YOURS IS MINE, SUCCESSION IN TUNISIA: FINDING A SUCCESSOR OR FEET FIRST?, and TROUBLED TUNISIA: WHAT SHOULD WE DO? The last is dated July 17, 2009 – on Obama’s watch. Its release may be one of those especially upsetting to the Secretary of State.

You’ll learn how to search WikiLeaks at the end of this article.

On Friday, January 14, after a month of mass protest against Tunisia’s corrupt police state and woeful economic conditions, President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and the government collapsed.

The flames of rebellion are spreading throughout the region. On February 2, demonstrators in Yemen heard President Ali Abdullah Saleh announce that he will not seek re-election when his term expires in 2013, after 35 years in office. By law, he could have run for two more 10-year terms. Saleh has been receiving generous amounts of US aid since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Demonstrators are not willing to wait that long; another protest is scheduled for February 3.

In Jordan, US-educated King Abdulla II has responded to unrest by firing his cabinet. There’s a demonstration going on in Khartoum, Sudan. And in Syria there are calls for a “Day of Rage” later this week.

So it’s not only Egypt that is erupting. The fire that started in Tunisia has spread throughout the region. And despite intermittent shutdowns and longstanding prohibitions, as Tom Malinowski says in Foreign Policy,

In one fell swoop, the candor of the cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades of backstage U.S. diplomacy.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of these countries will wind up with a true democracy, any more than the United States has done. But tyrants everywhere are on notice that the world is a different place from here on out. People can talk with each other and make plans in ways that the overlords cannot control.

How to search the WikiLeaks cable database:

On the main Cablegate page, find the heading “Browse by Origin,” about halfway down the left-hand column. You need to know the city in which the US embassy is located. If you’re looking for Egypt, pick C for Cairo, click on Embassy Cairo, and you’ll wind up here, at a table showing available cables by title, date, and more. After that, you’re on your own. The WikiLeaks site lacks Google-like text search capabilities.

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