Post-Wikileaks lessons from the Tunisian ‘intifada’

The real scandal revealed on closer examination of diplomatic cables from the MENA region, is the gulf that separates what US diplomats acknowledge in private and what US leaders say (and do) in public, vis-a-vis democracy promotion in the Middle East

Although it may be too soon to rehabilitate Bush-era talk of ‘domino effects’ in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), albeit this time catalysed not at the butt of a US gun but by real people power, the forced resignation of Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has surely sent shockwaves throughout Arab capitals.

Ubiquitous amongst the throngs of angry protesters, decrying now not only the dire socio-economic and political conditions that originally brought them to the streets, but also the brutal deaths suffered by their brave fellow citizens at the hands of the government’s repressive security apparatuses, were banners and placards written in English:  ‘Ben Ali You Kill Your People’ and ‘Game Over’. This was followed by a third, which read: ‘Yes We Can!’ on one side and 'Power to the People’ on the other, making clear why so many protesters chose to express their despair in this idiom, rather than Arabic or French, the country’s official and second languages. The message was intended for the US Government, and it came across loud and clear. After so many years of watching successive US administrations disguise the promotion of sinister ideological, material and military interests in the region with empty rhetoric about the promotion of freedom and democracy, the people, even those in one of the most pro-western countries in the region, are calling their bluff.

After the latest raft of diplomatic cables exposed by the information activist group, Wikileaks, much was made in the mainstream media of the alleged distance separating what Arab leaders are willing to say in private to their American diplomatic interlocutors and what they say (and do) in public, in the context of their domestic audiences. But a much more profound example of diplomatic and political duplicity, revealed by these cables, is now being made explicit by the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ taking place in Tunisia. The real scandal revealed on closer examination of diplomatic cables from the MENA region, is the actual gulf that separates what US diplomats acknowledge in private and what US leaders say (and do) in public, in particular vis-a-vis democracy promotion in the Middle East. Wikileaks confirmed that the US government is well aware of the fact that its closest allies in the region are largely unrepresentative, repressive, and parasitic governments.

The ‘Iranian peril’ Wikileaks revelation fitted comfortably within the ‘war on terror’ discourse regarding the ominous Islamist ‘threat’ posed to western civilisation by a heterogeneous range of state and non-state actors. Led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US politicians and pundits lost no time in spinning this story in their favour. But even here, the DC spin machines were unable to maintain hegemony over that discourse for long. More nuanced and astute assessments of Arab positions vis-a-vis the Iran question soon entered the fray. Some pointed to the existence of heterodox positions on the issue amongst Arab leaders, arguing that the Saudi, Jordanian and Bahraini positions did not represent a consensus. Others pointed out how unreflective of popular Arab opinion these decontextualised utterances by Arab leaders were in relation to the way Iran’s nuclear program (be it civilian or military in nature) is actually viewed in the region. Veteran analyst of new media in the region, Mark Lynch, claimed that Arab leaders’ public utterances on the matter, which are reflected in their actual policies towards Iran, are much more in line with how the majorities of their populations feel. Finally, in the case of Tunisia, we are witnessing a powerful example of what can happen when a government attempts not only to constrain, but to eliminate that public sphere.

Unfortunately for the Tunisian people, the story of their profound loathing of their country’s leaders did not fit into the ‘war on terror’ discourse. Tunisia, a country hailed for its radical secularism and liberal economic system, albeit one more akin to the Russian crony capitalist or repressive South Korean models than the western ideal-type, has been positioned on the ‘us’ side of that conflict. Despite US diplomats acknowledging, behind closed doors, that the ‘regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people,’ and that a majority of Tunisian citizens despise their president and his family, referred to in one cable as a ‘quasi mafia’, until the government’s violence and repression became so appalling that the story virtually forced its way onto the front pages of US mainstream media, the Obama administration remained silent.

Obama’s June 2008 Cairo speech was seen by many as heralding a dramatic sea change in US relations with the Muslim world, when he indicated that whilst adopting his predecessor’s rhetorical adherence to a policy of ‘democracy promotion’ in the region, he distanced himself from the aggressive manner in which his predecessor pursued this alleged agenda. Not only did he hold the view that democracy is a common aspiration of ‘all people’ in the world, but Americans would promote and protect such mechanisms and institutions associated with this form of governance, as human rights, ‘everywhere’. The US president reiterated this position in his 10 November 2010 speech in Jakarta, whose intended audience, as with the Cairo address, was perceived by many analysts to be the broader Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which he explained his view that democracy ‘goes beyond casting a ballot,’ requiring ‘strong institutions’, ‘free press’, an ‘independent justice system’, and a vibrant civil society.  

As with the various other areas of Obama’s Middle East agenda, where policy and practice have fallen well short of rhetoric, including in regards to his pledges to end the various human right violations associated with the ‘war on terror’, so too have his actions spoken louder than words when it comes to the issue of democracy in the region.

Like administrations before it, Obama refrained from criticising the devastating effects of the neoliberal reforms pushed on the country by the IMF/World Bank and other ‘structural adjustment’ gurus. Their calls to lower tariffs, privatise, reduce food and gas subsidies, focus development strategies on the tourism industry and the creation of ‘free trade zones’ that produce goods targeted for the European market, resulted in even greater levels of economic stratification, increased numbers living in poverty and a proliferation of low skilled jobs unable to meet either the economic needs or life aspirations of a majority of university graduates. About the only area of state funding that wasn’t reduced as a result of these neoliberal reforms was that of security - Tunisia has a 150,000-strong police force, which, as Soumaya Ghannoushi has noted, is ‘the same size as Britain's, with a population a sixth as large.’ This came in handy for the repression of various groups seen by the government as constituting national security threats, starting with the country’s largest, Islamist party, an-Nahda, and eventually encompassing every area of potential political dissent - from student activists, to trade unionists, to liberals and leftists.

So, Obama’s condemnation of the Tunisian government’s violence on the day that Ben Ali was finally forced to flee the country and his statement that ‘the Tunisian people have the right to choose their leaders,’ may be seen by many Tunisians as too little and too late. They might have welcomed less of the carrots that have come Tunisia’s way in the form of military and economic assistance, and more of the sticks, such as sanctions and diplomatic isolation, that seem so readily available for any infraction of US red lines perpetrated by the Iranian government.

Though Obama has missed his opportunity to claim that he was firmly on the side of progressive ‘change’ in the case of Tunisia, there is ample opportunity elsewhere in the region, beginning with Egypt, where western ally, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power for 30 years. The Egyptian president, we learn from a leaked memo Margaret Scobey, US ambassador to Cairo, sent to Hillary Clinton, was ‘most likely to die in office,’ rather than voluntarily step down. 

Despite this acknowledgment, the Obama administration remained quiet in the lead up to Egypt’s November 28 parliamentary elections, then only expressing ‘disappointment’ when it became clear that the president’s National Democratic Party won its 83% share of the vote as a result of massive fraud, in what local and international human rights activists condemned as an election marked by violence, ballot rigging, and the arrest of opposition leaders and activists on trumped up charges. The situation was so bad that for the first time since 1990 when they protested Egypt’s support for the US in the first Gulf War, key opposition parties boycotted the election, pulling out of the second round.

As in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the region, the political repression in Egypt is intimately linked to the introduction of neoliberal economic policies that began in the late 70s and early 80s. These policies had the effect of destroying a ‘social contract’ implicitly agreed between the distributive, post-independence states characteristic of the region at the time and their societies, in which the latter gave up their right to meaningful political participation in return for generous social provisions and the promise of national development. Once these governments broke their end of the bargain they were aware a price would have to be paid, either through political reform or increased repression. Most states, including Egypt and Tunisia, opted for the latter.

As the Columbia university professor of Middle Eastern Studies Timothy Mitchell has said with respect to Egypt, where, as in Tunisia, protests have addressed not only the lack of democratic freedoms, but also the lack of economic opportunities and the gross inequalities underpinning society, ‘neoliberalism has meant a steady remilitarization of power,’ and an inevitable reduction of space for civil society. Despite this, ‘the US refuses every appeal to speak out in public on these issues, declaring no concerns beyond the endurance of the regime and its neoliberal reforms.’

As Obama conceded in his Jakarta speech, democracy is ‘often messy. Not everyone likes the results of every election.’ To truly support democratic reform means accepting the outcome of an election regardless of whether it is a western-oriented, liberal party or conservative Islamist party willing to ‘play by the rules of the game’ that wins. As Obama said, ‘You go through your ups and downs [in a democracy]. But the journey is worthwhile’. Perhaps the people of the region are no longer betting on US promises to save them from the kleptocratic, repressive governments that the US is partially responsible for creating and mostly responsible for sustaining. Activists from diverse political persuasions, including Islamists and leftists, trade unionists and human rights workers, are joining forces and taking matters into their own hands.

About the author

Corinna Mullin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis as well as a Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her current research focuses on the dynamic relationship between the Arab revolutions and international relations, focusing in particular on: legacies of western intervention in the region, the role of international actors in transitional justice, as well as the impact of the revolutions on Tunisian and Egyptian foreign policies.