ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The protests in Egypt and other Arab countries have been the first sweeping political movement to develop in the age of WikiLeaks. Of course, leaked diplomatic documents and revolutions are not strangers. In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks published diplomatic documents that the czarist foreign ministry had kept secret. Among those documents was the agreement by which Britain and France had secretly carved up the Middle East.

Well, there was nothing quite that earthshaking in the WikiLeaks cables about Tunisia or Egypt. But the massive quantity of newly publicized U.S. diplomatic reports has contributed to the discourse and the defense of the protests.

Ian Black is Middle East editor of The Guardian, the British daily that's published much of the WikiLeaks cable release.

And, Ian Black, how would you describe the way in which people have cited the WikiLeaks cables in all these events?

Mr. IAN BLACK (Middle East Editor, The Guardian): Well, what's happening now in the case of Egypt is that people who have access to the WikiLeaks documents are finding that it is a terrific resource. If you want to know something about Omar Suleiman, the new Egyptian vice president, then you dip into this extraordinary database and find lots of references to him from the American Embassy in Cairo and indeed from all over the Middle East because he's a figure who is well-known on the international diplomatic circuit.

So what we're seeing is journalists, the media using WikiLeaks to give richer background detail to the stories that they're doing. And the Egyptian case is the first time - it's the biggest story, if you like, that's emerged since then. Of course, Tunisia was a similar case, but that was on a lesser scale, perhaps.

SIEGEL: Yes. There was - in Tunisia, protesters didn't need the U.S. Embassy cable to tell them that their government was very corrupt, but there was an embassy cable that certainly confirmed that the U.S. government understood how corrupt it was and that Washington would not be able to contest that claim in any way.

Mr. BLACK: There were a couple of extraordinary powerful documents written by the then-American ambassador to Tunisia, and he described in really rich detail how this regime of Ben Ali, the now former president, was alienated from and hated by its own people. He particularly focused on the corruption and the cronyism and the nepotism that surrounded the president's family and particularly his wife's family, who, of course, were known and widely disliked in Tunisia.

But I think the effect of seeing the black and white assessment of -private assessment, of course - of the American ambassador did something to give those Tunisians seeking greater freedoms and democracy a sense that they weren't alone in how they saw their own rulers.

SIEGEL: Now, one of the most newsworthy of all of the U.S. diplomatic cables to be made public by WikiLeaks involved Yemen - a cable documenting the Yemeni president's duplicity in letting the U.S. strike at al-Qaida targets in his country while he would claim that Yemeni forces were doing it. Has that cable figured much in the Yemen protests, or have they been more about food prices and such?

Mr. BLACK: Well, I think that when the WikiLeaks cables about Yemen first came out, it was obviously big news in Yemen. It confirmed, if you like, I think what people suspected. That is the duplicity of the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was caught in this document admitting that he had lied to his own people about the attacks on al-Qaida. And that did cause some problems. There were questions asked in the Yemeni parliament. There were accusations that Saleh was in the pockets of the Americans, exactly, of course, the impression that he was trying to avoid when speaking privately.

But I think you're right that as unrest across North Africa and the Middle East has unfolded, it's been the fundamental factors that have motivated people, whether it's of rising food prices or unemployment or sense of general hopelessness and anger at corrupt and unaccountable governments. Those, I think, are the drivers, if you like, of this wave of unrest that began in Tunisia, and we're now seeing embracing Egypt.

The WikiLeaks revelations, I think, at most, provide confirmation that America, after all the most powerful country on Earth, knows what is really happening. Of course, that does not always show the United States in a good light, but that, I think, isn't the main point. It's confirmation of what people in these countries know and feel intuitively to be the case.

SIEGEL: Ian Black, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Ian Black spoke to us from London, where he is Middle East editor of The Guardian.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.