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A Tunisian Activist Describes How Manning's Leaks Helped Topple a Dictator

Sami ben Gharbia was one of the first recipients of the "Cablegate" files.
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Billboard erected in Washington, D.C., by the Bradley Manning Support Network. (PHOTO: SAVE BRADLEY/FLICKR)

Billboard erected in Washington, D.C., by the Bradley Manning Support Network. (PHOTO: SAVE BRADLEY/FLICKR)

Medium just published an essay by Tunisian democracy activist Sami ben Gharbia explaining how he and his group used material leaked by recently-convicted Chelsea Manning, then Bradley, to overthrow Tunisia's dictatorship, kicking off the chain of events still called the Arab Spring. Gharbia was at the center of the group that transformed Manning's raw material into a public record, the now-famous "embassy cables."

For me, it all started in mid-October of 2010, with a direct message on Twitter from a good friend of mine. He belonged to a circle of digital activists with whom I worked closely with for years on many advocacy projects in the Arab World, from anti-censorship strategies and campaigns to building and training non-violent protests movements. In that DM he urgently asked me to speak over encryption with him. After one single OTR chat session, he sent me an encrypted zip file containing a trove of around 400 texts files organized in about 15 folders. All the folders were named after Arab countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, Bahrain, etc.

Gharbia was in Berlin at the time. He went to a cafe to make sense of the files.

I went out with my laptop and sat on the terrace of Morena cafe in the anti-establishment and counterculture neighborhood Kreuzberg. By then, I was one of a handful of people on the planet who had access to this sensitive dataset. I jumped into Tunisia’s folder, opened the first file and lit a cigarette, then the second file, the third, and the rest of the thirty files related to my country, with almost the same number of cigarettes. It was the Wikileaks U.S. State Department Cables, widely known as Cablegate, with all the political scandals, nepotism, and corruption of the disgraced Ben Ali regime. I didn’t have time to read the other Arab countries’ files. I knew I had in front of me a valuable set of documents that could be turned into action. This is what we were looking for during the last decade of strategizing and theorizing about citizen dissent media, diaspora media, exiled media, digital activism: the ability to inform and transform. This was momentum.

The rest of the story, which reads like a potboiler, goes on to explain how they got the information into Tunisia, and how they created a "leak within a leak," moving the information beyond the U.S. and European media outlets WikiLeaks had favored, to an international audience and particularly the Arabic-reading public. Gharbia argues for viewing Manning's leaks, which recently resulted in a 35-year prison term for espionage, as essential to toppling a dictatorship in Tunisia, more than they were a threat to anyone's national security.

It should be said that I've met Gharbia perhaps a half-dozen times and think he's a really likable guy. In 2009 I briefly worked for Global Voices, an organization he also worked with, which advertises itself as a media organization. Founded by a former CNN reporter and a tech millionaire turned academic, GV runs a website that translates blog posts by what used to be called "citizen journalists," and now might more accurately be called "people talking on the Internet." In practice, many of those people are pro-democracy activists of various stripes.

Gharbia was one of them, and his thoughts on Manning are unusually informed ones, by one of the people who received the documents for which Manning now faces more than three decades behind bars.