The List

Best of ArabLeaks

Just how much did these cables change the world?

Ever since those first cables from Tunis leaked on Dec. 7, 2010, informing the world that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's extended family was a "quasi-mafia" and that his son-in-law's "over the top" mansion housed not only an infinity pool but also a tiger who fed on "four chickens a day," WikiLeaks has been intimately bound up with the revolutions. Indeed, the Tunisian uprising began only 10 days later, and its shock waves have spread across the Arab world.

If it's too much of a leap to say that the cables gave rise to the protests, they certainly provided a lens through which the Arab public could, finally, get a candid glimpse as to how Washington saw their leaders: Omar Suleiman's brief tenure as vice president of Egypt was illuminated by a few cables discussing his toadying relationships with Israel, the CIA, and President Hosni Mubarak. And embattled Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's image in the Western world took on a lurid spin after the leak of an early cable about his "personal proclivities." Not only did WikiLeaks reveal his voluptuous Ukrainian nurse to the world, it encapsulated his decades of rule: "While it is tempting to dismiss his many eccentricities as signs of instability," read the cable, "Qadhafi is a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for forty years through a skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods."

Now that the revolutions are entering their fourth month, however, with two governments overthrown and others tottering on the brink, are the WikiLeaks cables merely reporting from a world that doesn't exist anymore? Or can WikiLeaks still be read with an eye toward the new Arab future? Foreign Policy went back through the files to dig up the best of the Arab world WikiLeaks: the cables with impact on today's revolutions, and tomorrow's.

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Qaddafi Family Values

Months before a rebellion broke out across Libya on Feb. 25, the world was familiar with the peculiarities of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's inner circle. WikiLeaks cables from March 2009 detailed the Qaddafi family's squabbling, which pitted one son -- the erstwhile reformer Saif al-Islam -- against his brother Mutassim, the slick-suited, hard-line national security advisor. Meanwhile, Qaddafi's daughter was tasked with "monitoring the activities of ne'er-do-wells" of the family -- a task she did none too well, given the diplomatic fracas that followed the arrest of one of Qaddafi's sons  in Switzerland for beating up two staff members at a luxury hotel in Geneva. The release of another cable, which reported that Qaddafi "relies heavily" on a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse, was also at least partially responsible for the U.S. ambassador to Libya being recalled to Washington.

While Qaddafi's public remarks often seem to suggest that he is living on a different planet, the colonel was quick to recognize that the upheaval in the Arab world threatened his four decade-long rule. In a Jan. 15 speech mourning the downfall of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he attacked WikiLeaks as "Kleenex" and even took on the Internet, calling it a tool "which any demented person, any drunk can get drunk and write in."


Egyptian Intrigue

Until Egyptian politics was turned on its head by the millions of protesters who demanded a change of the status quo, the chattering classes considered it a near certainty that President Hosni Mubarak would eventually be replaced by his son, Gamal, or his national security advisor Omar Suleiman. In the days when it seemed Mubarak was sure to cement a clean succession, WikiLeaks published a number of State Department cables detailing the palace intrigue in the succession struggle, including one that reported, "despite palpable public hostility to his succession, and potential stumbling blocks, the way forward for Gamal currently appears open." Today, however, with Gamal holed up with his father in Sharm el-Sheikh and under a government order that freezes his assets, that path is decisively closed.

Suleiman, whom Mubarak appointed vice president in an unsuccessful attempt to assuage protesters' anger in late January, also makes a number of notable WikiLeaks appearances. One cable referred to the former spy chief as Mubarak's "consigliere" -- a judgment that could go a long way to explaining why he was viewed with skepticism by the Egyptian people as an appropriate replacement for Mubarak.


Al Jazeera's Missteps

Al Jazeera earned glowing praise across the Arab world -- even from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- for its 24/7 coverage of the Middle East uprisings. But the WikiLeaked cables suggest that U.S. diplomats don't believe the network is always the courageous and objective source of news that it claims to be. The cables reported that the Qatari government, which owns Al Jazeera, has been using the station as "a bargaining tool"  in its diplomacy with foreign countries.

The cable noted that al Jazeera's increasingly favorable coverage of Saudi Arabia had greased the wheels of Qatari-Saudi reconciliation and suggested that the network's coverage of the United States should be included as part of U.S. diplomats' discussions with Qatari officials.


Tunisian Excesses

The regime of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, which was the first domino to fall in the Middle East, was the subject of some particularly damning revelations in the WikiLeaks cables. U.S. diplomats described the Ben Ali clique as "The Family" who ran Tunisia for its own personal enrichment. The cables also revealed that former first lady Leila Trabelsi, who became a hated symbol of the regime's greed, made a hefty profit off the sale of a private school.

This material was so damning that it inspired TuniLeaks, a spinoff website solely dedicated to the cables from Tunisia. It was evident that Tunisians took the message to heart: After the Ben Ali family fled to Saudi Arabia, looters targeted the homes of Trabelsi's families as symbols of the ancien régime's corruption.


Mixed Signals from Tehran

The WikiLeaks cables revealed the true extent of the Gulf Arab regimes' antipathy for Iran, most famously with Saudi King Abdullah's admonition that the United States should "cut off the head of the snake" in Tehran. But the cables also revealed no small amount of eye-rolling in U.S. officialdom about Arab bravado toward their Persian rival. The Saudis always want to "fight the Iranians to the last American," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was reported to have said in February 2010.

A number of other cables describe U.S. officials' attempts to grapple with the mixed signals coming out of the Islamic Republic. "GOOD LUCK FIGURING OUT WHO IS IN CHARGE IN TEHRAN," read the paragraph heading of one cable, while another warned simply, "BRACE FOR UNCERTAINTY."


Yemen's Double Game

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has had his hands full trying to tamp down multiple revolts across this impoverished country, and protests in Sanaa are now occurring on a regular basis. The WikiLeaks cables revealed that Saleh had been playing a double game with the U.S. military, using weapons that the United States had given him to fight al Qaeda to combat a purely domestic insurgency. Despite Saleh's promises to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. ambassador reported that Yemen's counterterrorism unit "has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa'ada," the northern province at the center of the other revolt.

The WikiLeaks cables provide further evidence of Saleh's long-standing effort to reap the benefits of U.S. support, while avoiding the perception among his population that he is an American stooge. On March 2, he was forced to issue an apology to the Obama administration after delivering a speech claiming that "an operations room in Tel Aviv" run by the White House was trying to destabilize the Arab world. As this diplomatic snafu attests, Saleh's balancing act is getting more difficult every day.

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The List

FP Favorites: The Stories That Mattered in February 2011

In this month's installment of FP's most popular stories of the month, the events unfolding in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world were king.

In sharp reversal, U.S. agrees to rebuke Israel in Security Council, Feb. 16

Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay blog has become the web's go-to for all information U.N. -- so much so that he was recently nominated for an ASME Digital Ellie Award for Best Digital News Reporting. This month, Lynch caused quite a stir by reporting that the Obama administration would support a U.N. Security Council statement reaffirming that the Council "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity."

Getty Images

10 Reasons Americans Should Care About the Egyptian Revolution, Feb. 10

Blogger Stephen Walt understands that maybe not everyone cares about the Egyptian Revolution as much as his readers. He offered a list of 10 reasons why non-foreign policy obsessed Americans should care about the what was happening in Cairo, connecting the events in Tahrir Square to the dollars in our pockets and the hash tags in our Tweets.

Paul Richards/AFP

From Malabo to Malibu, Feb. 22

One of the highlight's of FP's March/April issue was Teodorin's World, an investigative piece by reporter Ken Silverstein, which delved into the life of the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea and the world's richest minister of agriculture and forestry, Teodorin Obiang -- a story complete with Playboy bunnies and $2 million Bugattis. This slideshow vividly illustrated that world, contrasting the lavishness of Obiang's Malibu estate with the abject poverty faced by most of the people in his country.

Javier Espinosa/El Mundo

China International, Feb. 22

As Gary Bass explains in Human Rights Last from FP's March/April issue, China's diplomats have the ear of the world's bad guys. In this astonishing photo essay, journalists Heriberto Araújo and Juan Pablo Cardenal, working with a team of photographers, traveled the world documenting China's global influence in some of the world's roughest spots from gold mines in Burma to construction sites in Angola.



Everybody Loves Loved Hosni, Feb . 1

Well, this is embarrassing. With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak officially out of power, there are 30 years of photo ops documenting his close relationship with other world leaders. Everyone from Jimmy Carter to Vladimir Putin to Princess Diana has shaken his hand and joined him for a chat.


Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Winners and Losers of the Revolution, Feb. 14

In another classic list, Stephen Walt breaks down the Egyptian Revolution and names its winners and losers. While Tahrir's demonstrators and Al Jazeera came out on top, the Mubaraks and Al Qaeda lost. As for Barack Obama? It's too soon to tell.


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Who's Next?, Feb. 11

To take a look at which autocratic leaders might be the next to fall after Mubarak, FP joined forces with D.C.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House. Kim Jong-Il and Robert Mugabe, beware.


Artyom Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images

Signs of the Times, Feb. 4

The protests in Cairo were colorful for many reasons, but many of the most memorable visuals came from the signs hoisted high by the crowds gathered in Tahrir. From depictions of Mubarak as "La Vache Qui Rit" to graffiti bearing the names of social media giants, the art of the Egyptian protest displayed both humor and insight into the nature of the revolution.



So Long, Chicken Little, Feb. 22

In this article from FP's March/April issue, the New America Foundation's Michael Lind asks, "Why is it that fallacies in foreign policy are so endlessly repeated?" He then lists the nine most annoying foreign policy clichés debunking everything from the likelihood that a nuclear bomb will explode in a U.S. city in the next decade to the death of the nation-state.






Really Bad Week: Egypt Edition, Feb. 2

Even before Mubarak left, David Rothkopf knew that the Egypt's revolution caught the attention of many world leaders -- and had them shaking in their boots. Here, he explains why Bibi Netanyahu, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and likely future Chinese President Xi Jinping are so worried about the events in the Arab world.