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The Importance of Wikileaks in the Egyptian Revolution

December 25, 2013

Photo Credit: Iwona Wisniewska via Compfight cc

Assange has claimed that Wikileaks was responsible for the Egyptian revolution; I’ve been pretty skeptical. A new article says Wikileaks mattered–but was hardly determinant. Photo Credit: Iwona Wisniewska via Compfight cc

I’ve been interested in the role of Wikileaks in the Egyptian revolution ever since I was quoted, out of context, on that very subject.

Most accounts of the Egyptian uprisings, even those that focus on the place of media in these uprisings (like mine) do not pay a lot of attention to Wikileaks. This is in stark contrast to accounts of the Tunisian uprising, where they are often treated as very significant in fanning the flames of fury that turned a protest into a demand for regime change.

However, I just read an article entitled “Aiding Revolution? Wikileaks, communication and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt” by Simon Mabon in Third World Quarterly.

He makes a case that Wikileaks fits exactly into the model in which I have been placing other media institutions and practices: very important, but only through the agency of the important social actors, agencies and movements that mobilized the texts and their contents.

The author concludes that there are five ways Wikileaks influenced the Egyptian revolution:

First, protesters within Egypt were inspired by events in Tunisia, which were occasioned by information within Wikileaks cables.
Second, it is clear that these cables have provided historical evidence of the restrictions on political space within Egypt put in place by the Mubarak regime, as well as of the brutality employed to maintain power.
Third, the evidence contained within the cables offered increased legitimacy to protest movements, both internally and externally.
Fourth, internationally the cables provided an increased impartial awareness of the nature of Mubarak’s rule, meaning that governments that tacitly accepted the behaviour of the regime were eventually unable to continue to do so because of the political costs.
Fifth, the impact of Wikileaks upon non-state actors should also be emphasised. Groups such as Anonymous and Telecomix aided the protesters through the provision of internet access when this was restricted.

Essentially, his argument is as follows:

  1. The release of diplomatic cables detailing the corruption of Arab leaders did not provide new information to citizens. Egyptians were aware of the corruption at every level of government from the local constable to the President and his family.
  2. However, by detailing the extent to which the United States–the regimes main Western ally–was aware of the regime’s corruption, its restrictions on citizens’ access to political space and free speech, and its abuse of the Emergency Laws to arbitrarily detain and torture anyone at any time, the Wikileaks reports
    • altered international perceptions of the legitimacy of the protesters by detailing the abuses people had suffered in the words, not of the protesters themselves, but of US diplomats who could be presumed to be partial to Mubarak, in anyone.
    • In addition, they aided dissent internally by giving the protesters a sense of vindication, and providing them with detailed information they could in turn disseminate through their networks
  3. This dissent was then spread through the Internet. Protesters made significant use of Facebook, Tweets, YouTube, Flickr and other resources primarily to build transnational networks (which increased pressure on the regime), and as antipropaganda, to counter the accounts being broadcast by state media.
  4. These efforts were strongly aided by external non-state actors, most significantly Al-Jazeera. The news channel covered the revolution in detail, in addition to covering the Wikileaks stories, and airing a considerable amount of anti-regime critical reporting.
  5. aUltimately, these efforts served to delegitimize the regime at home and abroad, and to further legitimising the protesters.
  6. The response of the government of Egypt to these events–shutting down 88 percent of the Internet–failed to diminish revolutionary efforts and may have added to them.
  7. Thus while Wikileaks, the Internet and Al Jazeera all had important roles to play within the protests, one must not diminish the role of the agency of social forces and social movements.

Here’s the abstract:

This article explores the role of external actors in facilitating the uprisings in Egypt that have become known as the Arab Spring. It analyses several of the diplomatic cables released by the Wikileaks organisation that possess an Egypt focus. The article suggests that while the cables did not make surprising revelations to Egyptians, the release of this information offered a source of external legitimacy for the protesters by detailing a history of oppression and human rights abuses; conversely, the cables delegitimised the Mubarak regime.  The data were then spread via different channels of communication to aid the protest movements both internally and externally. The article concludes by suggesting that while this information was incredibly important, as were the channels of communication used to facilitate events and spread the information, one must be careful not to diminish the importance of agency.

References:

Mabon, Simon. 2013.  Aiding Revolution? Wikileaks, communication and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt. Third World Quarterly 34(10): 843-857
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