After the furore has died down about overstated claims of responsibility from Facebook and other social media sites for the Arab Spring, we can begin to understand the effects of increased media transparency on the series of revolutions throughout the Arab World. Tunisia, where the first demonstration took place, and the first country to eject its leadership, was a major catalyst for further demonstrations and revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the ongoing violence in Syria and other smaller civil disturbances throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The former President-for-life of Tunisia, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, recieved over 90% of the vote in every election between 1987 and 2011, whilst maintaining a luxurious lifestyle for himself, his wife Laila, and other members of the Ben Ali family.
Riots in Tunisia, and public expressions of discontent in general, were rare prior to the revolution, largely due to the efficiency of the oppressive organisations employed by the Ben Ali Government, and the relatively high standard of living of Tunisians, in contrast to their neighbours in other North African countries. However, like in many Arab countries, the necessities of life were subsidised by government institutions- The National Solidarity Fund and the National Employment Fund are two examples. in the years prior to the revolution, attempts were made to liberalise these institutions, leading to a worsening in the living standards, along with a reduction in employment prospects for young people, particularly after the financial crisis in 2008, all of which were compounded by food price inflation, leading to a crisis situation in which Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, the first of many desperate acts of resistance against the ruling family.
While it is clear that the fabulous wealth of the Ben Ali family, in contrast to the relative poverty of the country as a whole, was well known amongst Tunisians, it is also clear that Wikileak’s expose of the accounts of American diplomat Robert Godec, who writes about the Ben Ali’s lavish lifestyle in detial when he visited Ben Ali’s daughter and son-in-law for dinner, outlines the problems of corruption, or who explains the problems of the regime in general, made the differences between the ruling family and the embittered population clear and undeniable.
Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the excesses of President Ben Ali's family that inspire outrage among Tunisians. With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire.
Godec’s prescient quote, taken from the second of the cables listed above, appears to encapsulate the Tunisian Revolution, and Wikileaks role within it, very well. Middle-Class Tunisians, notably present in demonstrations and whose role was imperative in the revolution, could no -longer deny the disparity in living standards between the ruling family and themselves. However, this seems to over-state the importance of Wikileaks, as it was clear that Ben Ali decadence was common knowledge. Julian Assange has another idea of what the importance of Wikileaks was:
…the elites within the country and without the country also know what is going on, and they can’t deny it, so, a situation developed where it was not possible for the United States to support the Ben Ali regime, and intervene in a revolution, in the way that it might have. Similarly, it was not possible for France to support Ben Ali or other partners in the same way that they might have been able to…the United States, or at least the state department, could be read, that if it came down to supporting the army or Ben Ali, they would probably support the army, the military class, rather than the political class. So that gave activists and the army, uh, a belief that they could possibly pull it off.
Assange’s theory, then, is that although the Wikileaks had a minimal effect in Tunisia, where they were more or less already common knowledge, the publication of this information on the world stage robbed the US and European powers of the ability to feign ignorance of the asociality of the Ben Ali regime, and intervene on their behalf. A brief reading of the cables regarding Tunisia supports some of what Assange says, it being made clear that the US regards the Ben Ali regime as an ally and an asset in the region, despite its instabilities already mentioned. And cooperation with the military class is cited as one of few successes in an attempt to work closer with the Tunisian Government. However, this theory is also beset with a lot of problems- we don’t know what the decision-making process is like within the major world powers, Julian Assange is clearly an outside figure, and his account of the Tunisian revolution contains several factual inaccuracies, to say nothing of the paranoia of which he is regularly accused.
What is interesting in the Tunisian case, however, is the distinction between common knowledge, and confirmed fact, and the effect that transparency can have not just on domestic politics, but the way in which it may also force international actors to justify their decisions on confirmed facts, rather than “common knowledge”. The effects of what is a relatively new tool are yet to be fully felt.