The leaks that shook the Middle East

WikiLeaks, a non-profit that published classified, censored, or otherwise restricted information, has played a significant role in influencing the political and social dynamics of the Middle East [Getty]

Reports of a deal set to free WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, ending his imprisonment in the UK amid a 14-year legal odyssey, were welcomed by several countries and leading human rights groups on Tuesday.

Assange, 52, agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal count of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defence documents, according to filings in the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

WikiLeaks, a non-profit that published classified, censored, or otherwise restricted information, has played a significant role in influencing the political and social dynamics of the Middle East.

Through his work with WikiLeaks, Assange exposed various governmental and military operations, which have had far-reaching consequences in the region.

Here’s a detailed look at what Julian Assange has offered the Middle East and his connections to the region.

Arab spring catalyst

One of the most notable impacts of WikiLeaks in the Middle East was its influence on the Arab Spring. The release of US diplomatic cables in 2010 provided detailed accounts of corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarian practices in several Arab countries, helping fuel public discontent which led to the uprisings that swept across the region.

WikiLeaks released cables highlighting the corruption and lavish lifestyle of Tunisia’s late Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family. These revelations contributed to the public outrage that led to the Tunisian Revolution, the first in the series of uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which led to the overthrow of Ben Ali.

Similarly in Egypt, Wikileaks exposed the Mubarak regime’s corruption and abuses, adding momentum to the protests that eventually led to President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

Civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan wars

WikiLeaks has also played a crucial role in exposing military operations and actions in the Middle East, shedding light on the realities of war and the impact on civilian populations.

In 2010, WikiLeaks published the Iraq War Logs, a collection of nearly 400,000 US Army field reports from the Iraq War. These documents revealed the true scale of civilian casualties, instances of torture, and insights into military operations in Iraq.

The logs provided an inside view of the conflict, challenging official narratives and emphasising the human cost of the war. They revealed that over 60 percent of the deaths in Iraq were civilians – marking a staggering 31 civilian deaths daily in the six-year period.

Similarly, the Afghanistan War Logs released by WikiLeaks detailed the US military’s operations in Afghanistan, including unreported civilian casualties and the role of private contractors. The documents offered insight into the conduct of the war and its impact on Afghan society.

US Diplomatic Cables

The release of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, known as Cablegate, had significant repercussions in the Middle East.

The cables revealed internal discussions within the Saudi government, its foreign policy manoeuvres, and its concerns about Iran. They showed that Saudi Arabia had put pressure on the US to attack Iran, while other Arab allies also secretly agitated for military action against Tehran amid the development of its nuclear programme.

In Yemen, the cables exposed US involvement in military operations against Al-Qaeda, including drone strikes, with dispatches revealing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s secret deal to let US launch missile attacks on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula but claim it as Yemen’s own work.

The leaks influenced local and Arab opinion, highlighting the extent of foreign intervention in Yemen.

On Israel

Assange’s WikiLeaks also shed light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader geopolitics of the region with cables revealing the close cooperation between the US and Israel on various security issues, including discussions on Iran’s nuclear program.

The leaked cables highlighted Israeli scepticism about the peace process, with Israeli officials expressing doubts about the effectiveness of negotiations and the role of other regional players.

The cables revealed Israel’s intentions to keep Gaza’s economy on the brink of collapse, maintaining it just above a humanitarian crisis level while avoiding a full-blown disaster. The Israeli strategy aimed to pressure and suffocate Gaza without triggering a severe humanitarian outcry.

The cables also revealed Israel’s concerns regarding instability in neighbouring countries, particularly Syria and Egypt, and how changes in leadership could supposedly impact its security.

The documents also touched on Israel’s policy of nuclear policy, with little official US or Israeli acknowledgement of its nuclear capabilities, despite widespread international speculation.

Other revelations addressed Israel’s capabilities and initiatives in cybersecurity and cyber warfare.

Syria war

In the context of the Syrian war, WikiLeaks released emails and documents that offered insights into the Assad regime’s strategies and the international community’s responses.

The released emails included communications between Syrian officials and their foreign allies, revealing the regime’s tactics and its efforts to maintain power amid the war.

The Syria Files shed light on the inner workings of the Assad regime, corruption, and the economy, and also revealed Western complicity.

Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, also faced controversy when WikiLeaks exposed her lavish spending during the onset of the war which saw tens of thousands of protesters disappear and towns bombed and gassed.

Whistleblowing and free speech

Assange’s advocacy for transparency and accountability resonated in the Middle East, where journalists and activists face repression.

By providing a platform for whistleblowers, WikiLeaks encouraged individuals to come forward with information on government abuses and corruption.

On Tuesday, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) welcomed Assange’s release, hailing it as a significant victory for media freedom.

The dropping of 17 of the 18 charges that he faced avoids the criminalisation of the normal journalistic practices of encouraging sources to confidentially share evidence of wrongdoing and criminality, the group said.

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