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WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange on Role of U.S. Cables in Helping Stir Arab Spring

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Earlier this year, WikiLeaks released the largest trove of classified U.S. State Department cables in history, exposing the U.S. role in propping up unpopular regimes in the Middle East and supporting human rights abuses against opponents. During a July 2 discussion moderated by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange highlighted the importance in releasing the information documented in the diplomatic cables, the impact WikiLeaks has had on world politics and journalism in general, and about the Arab Spring political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, now continuing across the region in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, I wanted to ask you about the Arab Spring and about what you see as WikiLeaks’ role in what started in Tunisia, on to Egypt, we’re seeing in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya. What role did WikiLeaks play?

JULIAN ASSANGE: It’s hard to disentangle, but the story that we have back from people who were in Egypt and from the newspaper Al Akhbar, one of the great newspapers published in the Middle East out of Lebanon.

AMY GOODMAN: You lived in Egypt for a time.

JULIAN ASSANGE: I lived in Egypt during 2007, so I’m familiar with the Mubarak regime and the tensions within the Egyptian environment. Actually, I was staying at that time, a rather unusual circumstance, where I was staying in Miss Egypt’s house. And Miss Egypt’s house, other than having paintings of Miss Egypt all throughout, was clustered right between the U.S. embassy and the British High Commission, with a van outside fueled with 24 soldiers in front of my front door. And so, for the sort of work we were doing, this seemed to be sort of the ultimate cover, if you like, to be right nested amongst this.

But, you know, it’s an interesting—Egypt is a very interesting place. At that time, you didn’t feel, in most areas of Cairo, the presence of the dictatorship. In fact, if you look out on the streets, men go to work. They go to the cafés to have shisha in the afternoon. The pigeon boys come out onto the roof. And there’s weddings on a Saturday and a Sunday. And in fact, the economic basis and the technological basis to Cairo seemed pretty much the same as London, if you compare it to Australian aboriginals. So, to my mind, actually, if we say that it is democracy that rules and manages the United States, or it is democracy, electoral democracy, that manages and rules London, this is completely ridiculous, because when we look at countries that are dictatorships, or soft dictatorships as in the case of Egypt, the day-to-day life and the technological activities and the patterns of behavior for most people are exactly the same. But it’s when you stray into those areas of Egypt and areas of Cairo, where the Interior Ministry is or where the Foreign Ministry is, that the level of paranoia and fear and the number of people guarding with submachine guns, and so on, increases. At that time, there was around 20,000 political prisoners of different types in Egypt. But remember, Egypt has a population of around 80 million.

So, this is always something that I am aware of, when you have an intelligentsia that writes, and writes about its problems, because this is the mirror image of the problem we now have with the mainstream press, which is, writers always write to their own favor and their own considerations and their own self-interests. So, a country which goes from a position of—can go from a position of not treating writers well to treating writers well and not treating everyone else well. By writers, I mean people who have ability to project a voice. So, for those 20,000 political prisoners in Egypt, they could gain no traction in the Western press. And yet, others, such as in Iran, we hear about all the time. It’s very interesting that Egypt was perceived to be a strong ally of Israel and strong ally of the United States in that region, and so all the human rights abuses and political abuses that were occurring every day in Egypt simply did not get traction.

And there was one moment where—rather actually unusual for Egypt, but perhaps a sign of the cleverness that came to be represented in the Arab Spring, where these 20,000 prisoners started a strike demanding conjugal rights, demanding that their wives be permitted to visit them in prison for sex, and then got some prominent muftis to come out and say, “Look, it’s bad enough that these people are political agitators, let alone homosexual political agitators.” And that is then something that was picked up by the Western press, because it had this extra salacious flavor. And so, that was my—some of my experiences with Egypt when I lived there.

Later on, when we worked on Cablegate, we selected a French partner, Le Monde, in order to get the cables into French, because we knew that they would have an effect in Francophone Africa. Also, cables were published in early December by Al Akhbar in Arabic from Lebanon, and also Al-Masry Al-Youm in Egypt, although material that was published in Egypt back in December, under Mubarak, was pretty soft, because of the threats that that newspaper was under. But Al-Masry Al-Youm pushed hard, and there was—a number of critical cables came out about the Tunisian regime and about Ben Ali.

Now, of course, the argument that has often been used, including, for example, in the electoral result that we were involved in in Kenya in 2007, is you just tell the people what’s going on, and then they’ll be angry about it, and they’ll oppose it. But actually, the real situation is much more rich and interesting than that. Rather, yes, the demos knows, the population starts to know, and they start to know in a way that’s undeniable, and they also start to know that the United States knows, and the United States can’t deny what was going on inside Tunisia. And then the elites within the country and without the country also know what is going on and know 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 Tunisia 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.

Also, in our strategy in dealing with this region, and our survival strategy for Cablegate was to overwhelm. That is, we have Saudi Arabia, for example, propping up a number of states in the Middle East, and in fact invading Bahrain even to do this. But when these states have problems of their own to deal with and political crises of their own to deal with, they turn inwards, and they can’t be involved in this prop-up. So, Cablegate, as a whole, caused these elites that prop each other up in the region, within the Arab-speaking countries, and within—between Europe and these countries and between the United States and these countries, to have to deal with their own political crises and not spend time giving intelligence briefings on activists or sending in the SAS or other support. And activists within Tunisia saw this. Very quickly, I think, they started to see an opportunity.

And that information, our site, a number of WikiLeaks sites, were then immediately banned by the Tunisian government. Al Akhbar was banned by the Tunisian government. A hacker attack was launched on Al Akhbar. Many were launched on us, but we had come to defend against them. Al Akhbar was taken down. Their whole newspaper was redirected to a Saudi sex site. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a Saudi sex site. And they wrested it back through involvement of the foreign ministry in Lebanon. And then, what I believe to be state-based computer hackers because of the degree of the sophistication of the attack, came in and wiped out all of Al Akhbar’s cable publishing efforts.

The cables about Tunisia were then spread around online, in other forms, translated by a little internet group called Tunileaks, and so presented a number of different facets that sort of—that everyone could see, and no one could deny, that the Ben Ali regime was fundamentally corrupt. It’s not that the people there didn’t know it before, but it became undeniable to everyone, including the United States, and that 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 a belief that they could possibly pull it off.

But this wasn’t enough. So, all that was intellectual and was making a difference and was stirring things up in Tunisia. And then you had this action by a 26-year-old computer technician, who set—who self-immolated on December 16 last year.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Bouazizi.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah. And was hospitalized and died on January 4th. And that taking a sort of intellectual frustration and irritation and hunger for change and undeniability to an emotional, physical act on the street is then what changed the equation.

But there’s other things that sort of—a more systemic issue that was gradually breeding up, which is you had aging rulers in the Middle East that—whose regimes, to that extent, were becoming weaker, and that the intellectual management of them was decreasing. You also had the rise of satellite TV and the decision by Al Jazeera staff to film and broadcast protest scenes in the street.

So, most revolutions kick off in a crowd situation like this one, where everyone can—you know, all the time the regime is saying, “This voice is an outcast voice. This a minority. This is not popular opinion.” And what the media does is censor those voices and prevents people from understanding that actually that what the state is saying is in the minority is in the majority. And once people realize that their view is in the majority, then they understand they physically have the numbers. And there’s no better way to do that then in some kind of public square, which is why Tahrir Square in Egypt was so important, because everyone could see that they had the numbers.

AMY GOODMAN: That was WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, speaking in London on July 2nd. For the full two-hour conversation Democracy Now! moderated between Assange and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. Almost 1,800 people gathered for the event. It was a rare public appearance for the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief.

Assange could not linger to talk. He had just enough time to get back to Norfolk to meet his curfew. He’s staying at the home of the Frontline Club founder, Vaughan Smith. The Frontline Club, the sponsor of our discussion, was founded in part to honor war correspondents who have died on the front lines. Assange is in England awaiting a July 12th extradition hearing, as he is wanted for questioning in Sweden related to allegations of sexual misconduct. He has not been charged. He was wearing an electronic ankle monitor under his boot and is required to check in daily with the Norfolk police station. He is fighting extradition to Sweden, concerned that Sweden could then extradite him to the United States. A grand jury has been empaneled in Alexandria, Virginia, dealing in part with WikiLeaks. Its latest release of documents, called Cablegate, is the largest trove of State Department documents released in history. Again, you can go to our website at democracynow.org for the full discussion.

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