American Democracy, Tunisia, and Wikileaks

Update: BBC and al-Jazeera report that Ben Ali has left the country and security forces have arrested family members at the airport.

The simultaneous (and related) unfolding of the uprising in Tunisia and the latest Wikileaks events reveals a great deal about our own country’s support for democracy.

If you aren’t already, I recommend you follow @abuaardvark (aka Mark Lynch) so long as this crisis in Tunisia lasts. Not only is Lynch following the up-to-the-minute events closely on Twitter–such as the news that dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali just sacked his government and will hold elections six months from now. But he also has chronicled the strange silence about this popular uprising in the US, particularly among the NeoCons who used democracy promotion as their excuse to launch an illegal war in Iraq.

Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt’s authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration’s alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime’s heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis’s efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The “Tunisia scenario” is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.


Perhaps they’ve had nothing to say simply because there has been little coverage of Tunisia in the Western media, and the United States has few interests or leverage in Tunis, making it a marginal issue for U.S. political debate. Tunisia is not generally on the front burner in American thinking about the Middle East. It’s far away from Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf, and plays little role in the headline strategic issues facing the U.S. in the region. Despite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women’s rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia’s absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration’s signature democracy promotion initiative.

This is understandable, but hardly satisfying. I can understand the hesitation of U.S. officials to take a strong position on the side of either the protesters or the regime at this point, given the strategic complexities and the implications of taking any rhetorical stance. To my ears, at least, the U.S. message has been muddled, with some officials seeming to take the side of the protesters and warning against too-harsh repression and others seeming to avoid taking a stance. For what it’s worth, I told a State Department official in a public forum yesterday that the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.

Click through for his update–a response to a WaPo column regarding such populist uprising as a threat.

With Lynch’s comments in mind, consider two different versions of the role of Wikileaks in this uprising.

Elizabeth Dickinson has a piece that–perhaps too strongly–calls Wikileaks “a trigger and a tool for political outcry” in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s government doesn’t exactly get a flattering portrayal in the leaked State Department cables. The country’s ruling family is described as “The Family” — a mafia-esque elite who have their hands in every cookie jar in the entire economy. “President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor,” a June 2009 cable reads. And to this kleptocracy there is no recourse; one June 2008 cable claims: “persistent rumors of corruption, coupled with rising inflation and continued unemployment, have helped to fuel frustration with the GOT [government of Tunisia] and have contributed to recent protests in southwestern Tunisia. With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system.”

Of course, Tunisians didn’t need anyone to tell them this. But the details noted in the cables — for example, the fact that the first lady may have made massive profits off a private school — stirred things up. Matters got worse, not better (as surely the government hoped), when WikiLeaks was blocked by the authorities and started seeking out dissidents and activists on social networking sites.

As PayPal and Amazon learned last year, WikiLeaks’ supporters don’t take kindly to being denied access to the Internet. And the hacking network Anonymous launched an operation, OpTunisia, against government sites “as long as the Tunisian government keep acting the way they do,” an Anonymous member told the Financial Times.

Compare that the very weird logic State Department Spokesperson Philip Crowley uses in his speech to a class on media and politics the other day.

No one is a greater advocate for a vibrant independent and responsible press, committed to the promotion of freedom of expression and development of a true global civil society, than the United States. Every day, we express concern about the plight of journalists (or bloggers) around the world who are intimidated, jailed or even killed by governments that are afraid of their people, and afraid of the empowerment that comes with the free flow of information within a civil society.

Most recently, we did so in the context of Tunisia, which has hacked social media accounts while claiming to protect their citizens from the incitement of violence. But in doing so, we feel the government is unduly restricting the ability of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views in order to influence government policies. These are universal principles that we continue to support.  And we practice what we preach. Just look at our own country and cable television. We don’t silence dissidents. We make them television news analysts.

Some in the human rights community in this country, and around the world, are questioning our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and Internet freedom in the aftermath of WikiLeaks.  I am constrained in what I can say, both because individual cables remain classified, and the leak is under investigation by the Department of Justice. But let me briefly put this in context and then I will open things up for questions.  WikiLeaks is about the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. It is not an exercise in Internet freedom. It is about the legitimate investigation of a crime. It is about the need to continue to protect sensitive information while enabling the free flow of public information. [my emphasis]

He sort of wanders back and forth between a discussion of press freedom and an insistence that persecution of Wikileaks is not a violation of that principle through the rest of his speech, at one point drawing a bizarre analogy between Coke’s secret formula and Google’s search algorithms and the US’ diplomatic secrets, as if our diplomatic secrets are the essence of our identity.

Maybe that was his point.

I find Crowley’s statement in the quoted passage interesting for several reasons. First, there’s the odd non sequitur from Tunisia to Wikileaks, perhaps suggesting some unspoken agreement on Crowley’s part with Dickinson’s assertion that Wikileaks had an affirmative role in fostering this expression of civil society.

But note, too, how Crowley conflates what this speech is supposed to be about–journalism, the Fourth Estate, big-P press, and only the “responsible press” at that–and social media. He says, first, that our country expresses concern about the plight of journalists and bloggers (he doesn’t except journalists from Reuters or al-Jazeera, though he should, considering how many of them we’ve targeted or killed). Those would mostly qualify as “press.” But then he says the State Department has expressed concern about Tunisia, too. And even he admits that Tunisia attempted its suppression of any discussions about the uprising by hacking social media accounts.

Not only does it make the target something different from Crowley’s “responsible press,” but it seems our government has zero ground to stand on in condemning a government’s efforts to use hacking–including DDoS attacks–to prevent its citizens from reading content it finds dangerous (not to mention more old-fashioned efforts at repression, such as shutting down server and funding access).

And from there, conflating “responsible press” and the social media-assisted citizen activism in Tunisia, Crowley then attempts to redefine what Wikileaks is about, distinguishing between the “responsible press” and social media-assisted activism and “the legitimate investigation of a crime” and “the need to continue to protect sensitive information.”

Now, for most of the rest of Crowley’s discussion of Wikileaks, he focuses on the first of the two things he tries to redefine WL as: the investigation of the leak, not admitting the difference between investigating Manning’s alleged leak of the information and investigating Assange’s role in publishing it.

We are a nation of laws, and the laws of our country have been violated. Since we function under the rule of law, it is appropriate and necessary that we investigate and prosecute those who have violated U.S law.  Some have suggested that the ongoing investigation marks a retreat from our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and Internet freedom.  Nonsense.

That’s safer ground for Crowley. After all, the US’ profoundly undemocratic response to Wikileaks extends not just to investigating and prosecuting Manning and Assange, but also to doing everything in its power to hinder Wikileaks’ publication of the material it already has, including, just like the government of Tunisia, hacking Wikileaks’ website.

Sure, the government has covered its tracks: We can’t prove the US government is the entity that launched DDos attacks on WL. Lieberman has accepted the blame for persuading Amazon to shut down WL’s US-based server. Paypal and various banks have explained they just shut down WL’s use of their respective services out of a seemingly independent desire to interpret their own service agreements in ways that precluded working with WL.

But does anyone doubt that the government was behind all of this?

How odd, Mark Lynch rightly finds it, that our government and pundits have been so silent about the challenge to authoritarianism in Tunisia. But for those, like Crowley, focusing on Tunisia’s technical repression of activists (as opposed to the physical repression of it), that question really could just as well be focused closer to home.

  1. chetnolian says:

    Tunisia is top of the news here on the BBC this evening. Actually the BBC has been ahead of the print media for a couple of days. We’ll have to take notice now.

      • MadDog says:

        More automatically updated live reports via The Guardian:

        5.57pm: Al-Jazeera’s reporter in Paris, Jacky Rowland, says it appears that the prime minister has led an “internal coup”. This is the same manner by which Ben Ali came to power in 1987, overthrowing the sitting president, Habib Bourguiba…

        6.04pm: Our correspondent in Rome, John Hooper, reports that Italy’s Adnkronos news agency says Ben Ali has arrived in Malta “under Libyan protection”…

        6.26pm: There are conflicting reports about Ben Ali’s whereabouts. The office of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said it has “no information” that he had arrived in Paris. Reuters said:

        Two officials at the French Foreign ministry said they did not know whether he had arrived in the country and were still checking…

  2. MadDog says:

    White House commentary via Reuters:

    …The White House said Tunisians should have the right to choose their own leader. It was monitoring developments in Tunisia and called on authorities there to respect human rights.

    “We condemn the ongoing violence against civilians in Tunisia, and call on the Tunisian authorities to fulfill the important commitments … including respect for basic human rights and a process of much-needed political reform,” White House spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement…

    • MadDog says:

      Nothing quite says “Principles First!” like trying to get a bet down after the horse race has been run.

      • MadDog says:

        Nothing quite says “Principles First!” like trying to get a bet down after the horse race has been run.

        From the President:

        Statement by the President on Events in Tunisia

        I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

        As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.

        • emptywheel says:

          Obama and Hillary are prepping to talk the King Husseins and the Mubaraks of the world to cede some democracy so our best allies don’t get overthrown by their people, who will have nothing to do with us.

          • MadDog says:

            I’ve got a feeling that things won’t be looking up for the Middle East ruling elite.

            Lebanon is about ready to fall off the cliff again, and the coup in Tunisia is likely only the beginning for the Tunisians.

            Jobs that they don’t have and can’t produce aren’t going to miraculously appear. The same can be said for the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian degreed unemployed.

          • skdadl says:

            Obama and Hillary are prepping to talk the King Husseins and the Mubaraks of the world to cede some democracy so our best allies don’t get overthrown by their people, who will have nothing to do with us.

            This for sure. Egypt and Jordan are very wobbly, face strong opposition movements, but those two current regimes are ultra-important to both the U.S. and Israel, as Tunisia wasn’t.

            Dangerous game. I don’t see how Mubarak can cede much. To me, things in Egypt have already gone too far.

  3. skdadl says:

    If you as citizens (or the “professional journalists” who will be bringing up the rear) allow any member of or spokesperson for the executive branch or the legislative branch to define what a journalist is, you are already at McCarthyism/Stalinism.

    This is that serious.

    • Mary says:

      You bet.

      Was the person who took this video, of GITMO protestors in Chicago on GITMO’s 10th anniversary, 1-11-201 and their arrest, a journalist?

      The words, ” we feel the government is unduly restricting the ability of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views in order to influence government policies” seem fitting, so I’ll borrow them from Crowley. Unless, that is he gets back to let us know he is now constrained from expressing a view on peaceful assembly.

  4. Mary says:

    Actually, this part of his speech pretty much summed it all up:

    I am constrained in what I can say

    Nothing says vibrant free speech like “I can’t speak under fear of being jailed and having my, and my family’s, lives ruined if I should in passing mention an item that has been writted about and published worldwide.”

    OTOH, I think he’s right about the rule of law and wiki. I think what they need to do for Assange and wikileaks is something like what they did for Yoo and torture, torture killings, use of torture infomration in judicial proceedings and congressional briefings, transfers of non-combatants out of country to “law-free” zones, etc.

    Let wiki hold an inhouse investigation into whether or not Assange was meeting his ethical obligatons. If they find he wasn’t, make sure there is a wikileaks inhouse longtimer who will overrule and decide he was, anyway.

    I know the WH, DOJ and State Dept will be shocked and stunned at the ease and elegance of this approach. Even more shocked when they find out they can use this idea for free.


  5. nextstopchicago says:

    Thanks for this, EW. (edited after re-reading some things. I can’t fault Diehl’s WP column today very much – since he only posits vague dangers from the Tunisian revolution, primarily as a way of showing the danger of continuing to side with repressive regimes. But yes, I agree that the various theoretical supporters of Arab democracy have done far too little to publicize the actual democratic uprising in Tunisia.)

    Mary, it’s not a big deal – but I think you mean 9th anniversary. The video says ‘entering it’s 10th year’ or something like that. I think my parents were at that protest, though I don’t see them in the video.

    At any rate, the events of the day have exposed Bradley Manning as something of an American hero. Thanks for calling a little more attention to the relationship between Wikileaks and what happened in Tunisia.

    • Mary says:

      You’re right – and I meant 2011 too. Started taking transfers in Jan 2002 (conspiracy theorist would have a big topic if it was Jan 2001).

      • nextstopchicago says:

        >conspiracy theorist would have a big topic if it was Jan 2001

        :-) Yeah, that was what made me notice. Among other things, I was like, wait, was Bush even inaugurated by 1/11/01 …

  6. nextstopchicago says:

    I’m trying to figure out where this is headed. La Repubblica reports (my Italian isn’t great) that a plane landed there to refuel, on a route towards Paris. But if I understand, they refused to verify that the President was on board, and Italians and French both said that the president couldn’t disembark, and that unless the plane said who the fourth passenger was, it had to keep going.

    More importantly, what will take the place of the Ben Ali government. This morning, RTT (whatever that is) was reporting that there was the beginnning of an agreement on a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition leader Najib Chebbi. But I’ve seen nothing about that elsewhere. La Repubblica says a “direttorio di sei persone” is in power.

    Does Chebbi speak for people in the streets? Who does? Who is the “directory of 6 people”? Does Ghannouchi have control, or is he a figurehead for members of the security forces? Earlier, I saw reference to the idea that there was disagreement between police and army, and that the police were stronger. (May not have been disagreement so much as that the rank and file of the police were deemed more loyal than common soldiers, so they were moved out of important areas.)

    This uprising seems like a pretty damned important event, so I’m very curious where it’s headed. And as ever, I’m somewhat naively hopeful that it’ll end well. We’ll see.

    After writing the above, I went back to EW’s link to abuaardvark, where the question of what comes next is starting to be asked – “long way from Ben Ali’s flight to real democratic transition, now’s the time for active international role”

    Whether I agree depends on what role the “international community” might choose to play. Hmm?

  7. Nell says:

    Marc Lynch: the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.

    Well, a stand. A principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression is one that you make even when it carries some costs (which Lynch is astute enough to know the Obama administration, like all the others before it, is never going to do).

    But, as MadDog notes, even that tame advice was too much.

  8. WilliamOckham says:

    I doubt Wikileaks has much to do with this. Twitter may be an excellent organizing tool, but look to the weather in Russia, Canada, Argentina, and Australia for the real reason behimd the timing of this. The fuel for this rebellion was food shortages.

  9. bobschacht says:

    American Democracy–
    Conservatives apparently are protesting the T-shirts that the University of Arizona handed out at the Memorial Service. The T-shirts read, “Together We Thrive: Tucson & America” which, they protested, was “an inappropriate political statement orchestrated by the White House,” according to a report in TPMDC.

    So, what’s next? A right-wing attack on “E pluribus unum”?

    I hope they’ll stop hyperventilating long enough to chill out a little, relax, and enjoy the weekend.

    Bob in AZ