WikiLeaks Could Hurt Leaders in Arab States

By Hiel, Betsy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

WikiLeaks Could Hurt Leaders in Arab States


Hiel, Betsy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


CAIRO -- When WikiLeaks intermediaries offered Lina Atallah a collection of U.S. diplomatic cables concerning Egypt, the managing editor of the Masry Al Youm newspaper's online edition quickly accepted.

"They said that it is going to make a huge difference if a local paper ... takes the lead in publishing these cables," Atallah, 28, said.

She received the leaked cables on condition that she pass them on to the newspaper's Arabic edition, which has more readers than its English-language website.

The cables deal with such issues as security concerns on the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian officials urging a delay of Sudan's unity referendum, and U.S. help on building a wall along Egypt's border with Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Atallah faces "huge difficulties" getting information on any issue that Egyptian officials consider sensitive. So WikiLeaks' offer was "most impressive," she said.

"It really speaks to the journalist in me who has been working hard ... often only with speculations and assumptions because there is no information."

In a region dominated by authoritarian leaders, the political fallout from -- and public interest in -- the leaked U.S. cables remain unclear.

Yet many Arabs are fascinated by the U.S. diplomatic comments about their leaders, much of which is not normally available or openly discussed here.

Relatively few cables have been released so far -- 2,700 alone concern Egypt -- and "Arab media has been a bit slow in translating these," said Issandr El Amrani, a writer and Middle East analyst. "There hasn't been anything super-explosive yet, but that doesn't mean there won't be."

A benefit for Islamists

The cables were leaked the night of Egypt's parliamentary elections. Atallah thinks "the gloom of the elections" -- which opposition groups decry as a fraud -- diverted attention from the leaks.

"These cables paint the regimes in a very bad light," said Shadi Hamid, the Brookings Institution's research director in Doha, Qatar.

They portray regional leaders "who are not representing their people's aspirations, who are more concerned with their own interests than anything else, and a foreign-policy orientation that is almost completely at odds with ... their own people," Hamid said.

So far, he sees "a lot of self-censorship" by Arab media because criticizing a king, emir or sultan is illegal in most Middle Eastern nations. People, too, are reluctant to openly express opinions, he said; in Qatar "there are whispers" but no public discussion.

The result, he said, is a gap "between the WikiLeaks documents existing and ... having an effect on Arab opinion."

Israel's media widely covered the leaks despite "a kind of (public) indifference," according to Israeli analyst Reuven Paz.

"There is a lot of satisfaction (over) the Arab pressure on the U.S. to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, or at least do more about it," Paz said. …

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