Skip to main content

Opinion: How WikiLeaks helped fuel Tunisian revolution

By Maha Azzam
Tunisia's president fled the country following weeks of demonstrations which have left 78 people dead.
Tunisia's president fled the country following weeks of demonstrations which have left 78 people dead.
  • WikiLeaks revelations exposed corruption at the heart of Tunisia's ruling elite
  • Protests sparked by the self-immolation of Muhammad Al Bouazizi, who died in December
  • Concerns discontent could spread from Tunisia to other nearby countries

London (CNN) -- Editor's note: Maha Azzam is an expert on the Middle East and North Africa, and an Associate Fellow at London-based international affairs think tank Chatham House.

Corruption has been one of the main features of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. It has gone hand in hand with authoritarian control of the state. Opposition groups and the public often spoke of endemic corruption among the Tunisian ruling elite.

However, the revelations made by WikiLeaks that in June 2008 the U.S. embassy in Tunis said that "Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President [Zine el Abidine] Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants," gave even greater weight and proof to an already widespread belief that Ben Ali and his wife's family, the Trabelsis, were the "quasi-mafia" often referred to by Tunisians. It added to the long list of grievances against a regime that had been in power for 23 years and had remained unaccountable.

What are the Tunisian protests about?

Al Bouazizi: The fruit seller who sparked a revolution

With the political and security apparatus under their control, the regime was able to exploit the economic system and the financial sector to enrich themselves.

The Ben Ali clan had a hand in every aspect of the new economy, be it duties on imports and exports, media, internet providers, telecoms, banks, shopping centers or property development.

Why are Tunisians still protesting?
101: WikiLeaks revealed
'Polite' mobs in Tunisia
Gallery: Startling power shift in Tunisia

According to WikiLeaks, prime real estate was reportedly expropriated from its owner by the government for use by the water authority, then later granted to Mohamed Sakher El Materi -- Ben Ali's son-in-law -- for private use.

The cables reported: "With real estate development booming and land prices on the rise, owning property or land in the right location can either be a windfall or a one-way ticket to expropriation."

Privatizations offered a valuable channel. Members of the family would buy at a symbolic price and then sell to entrepreneurs at massive profits. They acquired commissions in foreign investments and were often the go-betweens in the award of public contracts. The leaked U.S. embassy cables cited that: "Lax oversight makes the banking sector an excellent target of opportunity, with multiple stories of 'First Family' schemes."

Anyone doing business in Tunisia, be they local or foreigner, would have been aware of the power and control of the Ben Alis, the Trabelsis and the coteries of power that surrounded them. However, the WikiLeaks revelations added to the "disgust" that many Tunisians had already been feeling at the chasm in wealth prevalent in Tunisian society, a country where unemployment runs at 30%.

The widespread protests that erupted were due to economic pressures and corruption, but they were also against a political system that abused human rights and showed no respect for the rule of law.

A new generation of Tunisians, connected to the internet and using Twitter Video, was galvanized to action against a repressive police force and security services. Today's technology provided them with channels that despite their government's restrictions, proved invaluable in spreading information and support for the protests, while WikiLeaks merely further exposed an already discredited and reviled regime.

Others in the region share the same long brewing discontent. The question now in the minds of many is whether the 50-year-old Egyptian who shouted anti-government slogans in front of the Egyptian parliament before setting himself on fire on Monday, and the four Algerians who have done so over the last few days, echoing the action of Muhammad Al Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who set himself on fire and died in mid-December, will help set in motion a similar chain of events.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maha Azzam.

Part of complete coverage on
'Sons of Mubarak' in plea for respect
Pro-Mubarak supporters believe Egypt's former president is innocent of charges of corruption and killing protesters.
Timeline of the conflict in Libya
Fighting in Libya started with anti-government demonstrations in February and escalated into a nationwide civil war.
Who are these rebels?
After months of seeming stalemate, Libyan rebels declared they were moving in on Tripoli. But who are they?
Why NATO's Libya mission has shifted
Six months and more than 17,000 air sorties after it began, NATO's Operation Unified Protector in the skies over Libya grinds on.
Interactive map: Arab unrest
Click on countries in CNN's interactive map to see the roots of their unrest and where things stand today.
Send your videos, stories
Are you in the Middle East or North Africa? Send iReport your images. Don't do anything that could put you at risk.
Libya through Gadhafi's keyhole
Behind the official smiles for the cameras some people in Libya's capital are waiting for the rebels, reports CNN's Ivan Watson.
How Arab youth found its voice
Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi not only ignited a series of revolts but heralded the first appearance of Arab youth on the stage of modern history.