The Carter Cables

Wikileaks has released the now declassified record of State Dept. dating from President Jimmy Carter’s first year in office, which were obtained through FOIA requests. The Carter Library had also released earlier this year a range of administration documents, but Wikileaks makes them searchable through its (much-improved) database. The cables cover 1977, including the January bread riots in Cairo and Alexandria. One early take on the protests sounds strikingly similar to the protests seen in 2011-2013:

3 - OUR IMPRESSION IS THAT VIOLENT ELEMENTS WHICH LAST EVENING THREW ROCKS IN TAHRIR SQUARE AND ROAMED IN SMALL GANGS THROUGHOUT CENTRAL CAIRO WERE ALMOST ENTIRELY COMPOSED OF YOUNG BOYS OF HIGH SCHOOL AGE. SIGNIFICANTLY, OLDER PEOPLE DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO MOST OF VIOLENCE. WE UNDERSTAND, HOWEVER, THAT OLDER WORKERS CONTRIBUTED TO VIOLENCE WHICH ERUPTED IN WORKING CLASS SUBURBS, ESPECIALLY SHUBRA.

4 - SITUATION AT 1030 LOCAL (0830Z) JANUARY 19: WHILE TAHRIR SQUARE STILL CLEAR, THOUSANDS HAVE BEGUN DEMONSTRATE TO NORTH AND EAST, ESPECIALLY NEAR CENTRAL BANK. ROCK THROWING AND PROVOCA- TION OF POLICE ARE PRIMARILY BY MOST YOUTHFUL OF RIOTERS. POLICE CHARGING CROWDS USING TEAR GAS. MOST SHOPS ARE CLOSED AND PRIVATE CARS ARE BEING KEPT OFF STREETS. POLICE HAVE SEALED OFF MOST OF DOWNTOWN CAIRO. ALL UNIVERSITIES AND SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED. MOST BUSES AND TAXIS ARE OFF STREETS. FOR FIRST TIME SINCE DEMONSTRATIONS BEGAN, ARMY UNITS WITH RIFLES ARE SPOTTED THROUGHOUT METROPOLITAN CAIRO AND WE HAVE HEARD LOUD REPORTS WHICH MIGHT BE RIFLE SHOTS. WE HAVE NOT, HOWEVER, SO FAR SEEN CRACK SECURITY RESERVE FORCES.

There are also some amusingly laconic Cold War artifacts, such as the following:

1 - CAIRO PRESS REPORTS THAT KHALID MUHI AL-DIN, LEADER OF EGYPT'S NATIONAL PROGRESSIVE UNIONIST PARTY (MARXIST), HAS LEFT FOR MOSCOW TO ATTEND PEACE COUNCILS MEETING AS HEAD OF EGYPTIAN COUNCIL.

2 - AS NOTED PARA 2 REFTEL, KHALID HAS BEEN DOING WHAT HE CAN BOTH TO BURNISH SOVIET IMAGE HERE AND TO PRESS FOR IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS. AS EGYPT'S "RESPECTABLE" COMMUNIST HE HAS KEPT HIS COMMENTS IN CHARACTERISTICALLY LOW KEY. MATTHEWS

Probably worth digging through if you have a specific enquiry about events taking place in 1977. Of course I chose Egypt as a search term but the cables are worldwide. Can't wait till they get to 1979 and those on the Iranian revolution, hostage crisis and siege of Mecca are released.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Trapwire: It's Not the Surveillance, It's the Sleaze

Trapwire: It's Not the Surveillance, It's the Sleaze | Danger Room

From Wired:

Ever since WikiLeaks began releasing a series of documents about the surveillance system Trapwire, there’s been a panicked outcry over this supposedly all-seeing, revolutionary spy network. In fact, there are any number of companies that say they comb through video feeds or suspicious activity reports in largely the same way that Trapwire claims to do. What’s truly extraordinary about Trapwire was how it was marketed by the private intelligence firm Stratfor, whose internal e-mails WikiLeaks exposed.

The documents show Stratfor being less than straight with its clients, using temporary jobs in government to set up Trapwire contracts, and calling it all a “wet dream.” In their e-mails, executives at Stratfor may have been hyping up a surveillance technology. But what they really did was provide reconnaissance on the $25 billion world of intelligence-for-hire that’s ordinarily hidden from public view. In this case, the sunlight isn’t particularly flattering.

. . .

On Aug. 17 of that year, Stratfor and Trapwire signed a contract (.pdf) giving Burton’s company an 8 percent referral fee for any business they send Trapwire’s way. The essay was partially a sales pitch — a fact that Burton neglected to mention.

When Wikileaks published the Stratfor files, I thought the whole thing was completely overblown and Wikileaks had acted criminally and irresponsibly. (Nuance here: Wikileaks almost always acts criminally, in a strict legal sense, but not always irresponsibly or immorally. I'm overall rather pleased with their release of the Iraq documents and videos, and while their handling of the State Dept. cables could have been better I think it had a net positive effect.) The release of private information was part of the damage here — a relative who subscribed (to the $99-a-year brief service, hardly an evil corporate behemoth) had his credit card details released out on the internet, which was predictably used for fraud. Not to mention the principle that a company like Stratfor, and its employees, have the right to confidentiality (and the duty to protect their data systems better.) But what really stank was the way Wikipedia tried to make an ordinary business and strategic intelligence service sound like SMERSH.

The hyping of Stratfor as an international spy service, which many fools on the web (and some in the media) ate up like candy, was utter bullshit. Stratfor is a publishing company that puts out a mixture of journalism, commentary and analysis within a strategic framework. I'm not at all sold on their intellectual model, which stresses geo-strategic principles rather over ground knowledge, but it's perfectly legitimate. So is using government contacts to get information; it's called cultivating sources.

The above story shows the worse thing Stratfor is guilty of: sleaze. It marketed a product to its customers on commission. I guess Wikileaks revealed that, but if it was a better journalistic enterprise it would have recognized that this was the story worth highlighting, not a fantasy about Stratfor's plans for world domination.

[Via Steve Hynd at the always excellent Agonist]

Update: Liberal Koshari dissents with my take on Wikileaks' criminality:

I fully disagree with an unusually simplistic and inaccurate statement he made in one of his recent posts: 

"Wikileaks almost always acts criminally, in a strict legal sense, but not always irresponsibly or immorally."

Many would disagree, and most conservatives would agree, with the statement above. The legality of Wikileaks activities is extremely complex and a matter of debate as some believe it is protected as a whistleblower intermediary and would argue, like in the Pentagon Papers, the Supreme Court established that the American constitution protects the re-publication of illegally gained information provided the publishers did not themselves break any laws in acquiring it. Back in 2010, publishing those leaked documents was not illegal which is why Senator Joe Lieberman has put forward his proposed SHIELD law (stands for Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination), which made it a crime to publish leaked classified information if doing so endangered U.S. agents or was otherwise not in the national interest.

Point taken about the ambiguous legality of disseminating documents, but what about the legality of obtaining them? Clearly the many US govt. documents were obtained either through sources that broke the law or military code (i.e. Bradley Manning case) or through hacking which was itself illegal. Ditto for the Syrian email trove — to obtain them, something had to be hacked, surely? Likewise in the Stratfor case, the hacking of the company's servers was criminal. 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

More me in Wikileaks

Since Wikileaks decided to release all the cables that were inadvertently leaked (or whatever happened), more and more cables featuring yours truly (and friends) have appeared. I particularly like this one which conveniently showcases my analytical acumen and future-prediction abilities:

El-Amrani speculated that if the GOE continues to cut off avenues of legal, non-violent political participation for both the secular opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood, and remains unable to build real popular support for the ruling party, it faces potential crisis if and when an economic dislocation or other shock, including labor unrest, were to occur. El-Amrani noted that he and other independent analysts have increasingly begun to wonder if an event like the 1952 riots1, which precipitated the Free Officers coup d’etat, might be on the horizon. 

To be honest, it was an opinion many voiced at the time of the disastrously anti-democratic 2007 constitutional amendments, during which this cable was written. But it’s nice to see one being quoted for record.


  1. The January 1952 Cairo riots presaged the Free Officers’ coup that came six months later.  ↩

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

I have arrived: Arabist makes Wikileaks

A bunch of new Wikileaks State Dept. cables about the Middle East have been released in the last few days, and to my surprise several friends have informed me that I appear in at least two. I now feel like a minor historical character.

In one 2005 cable I appear in my capacity as one of the editors of the short-lived Cairo Magazine. I'm somewhat surprised that the difficulties that the magazine had with the authorities merited their own cable, but apparently in the context of the Bush administration push for reform in Egypt in 2005, it makes more sense.

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What the XXXX?

There sure are a lot of XXXs in this redacted Wikileaks cable, citing an Egyptian parliamentarian's speculation that Minister of Defense Hussein Tantawi and Director of Intelligence Omar Suleiman might thwart Gamal Mubarak from succeeding his father, back from 2007:

--------------------------------------- 
XXXXXXXXXXXX
--------------------------------------- 
 
¶6. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX noted that hisXXXXXXXXXXXX (per ref B, a 
XXXXXXXXXXXX), is XXXXXXXXXXXX at the XXXXXXXXXXXX, due to what XXXXXXXXXXXX termed the continuing XXXXXXXXXXXX.  According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, MinDef Tantawi called him XXXXXXXXXXXX to ensure that XXXXXXXXXXXX was satisfied as to how XXXXXXXXXXXX was being XXXXXXXXXXXX.  XXXXXXXXXXXX said he engaged XXXXXXXXXXXX with XXXXXXXXXXXX, asking him to help get XXXXXXXXXXXX, as he has already XXXXXXXXXXXX and 
"XXXXXXXXXXXX"  XXXXXXXXXXXX allegedly checked with XXXXXXXXXXXX, 
then replied that XXXXXXXXXXXX cannot be XXXXXXXXXXXX before he XXXXXXXXXXXX, as, "we are under terrible foreign pressure to XXXXXXXXXXXX, so cannot XXXXXXXXXXXX, as they will 
then criticize us for not XXXXXXXXXXXX too."  XXXXXXXXXXXX subsequent suggestion to XXXXXXXXXXXX both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX went unheeded.  However, XXXXXXXXXXXX allegedly told XXXXXXXXXXXX that he had instructed XXXXXXXXXXXX to not 
undertake any procedures to divest XXXXXXXXXXXX of his XXXXXXXXXXXX; XXXXXXXXXXXX
therefore believes XXXXXXXXXXXX will be able to re-assume XXXXXXXXXXXX 
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Le Monde releases cables on US-Egypt relations, Egyptian military, and Gamal

Le Monde — and as far as I can tell, only Le Monde — has published two articles on the Egyptian military based on Wikileaks cable that have not yet been released, even on the French newspaper's site.

WikiLeaks : l'armée égyptienne est "en déclin" mais reste "puissante" - LeMonde.fr

WikiLeaks : l'armée égyptienne ne veut pas que le fils succède au père - LeMonde.fr

Here is a short summary of key points raised in the cables for those who don't read French, plus some context not in the articles: 

  • US sees Egyptian military as "in decline" and a difficult ally. "The generals long were our best allies but the situation has changed," a cable from August 2007 notes. This is shortly before the US Congress decides to withhold $100 million in military aid. Nonetheless they remain guarantors of regime stability.
  • US sees Egyptian military as unwilling to adopt strategic reforms, instead concentrating on acquisition of hardware. US would like to see the Egyptian military more engaged in regional counter-terrorism operations, but it is refusing to do so.
  • Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi is seen as the chief obstacle to US ideas for strategic reform, but is trusted by Mubarak. "Since his nomination, the extent of tactical and operational preparedness has been degraded. But Mubarak has confidence in him and he could still remain in place for years." 
  • Army is major economic player with interests in water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotels and gas stations, as well as a major land owner in the Nile Delta in on the Red Sea coast. (Sept. 2008)
  • Obama Deputy Defense Sec Colin Khal met with three retired generals with high-level positions in the Egyptian Ministry of Defense — Mohamed Al-Assar, Ahmed Moataz and Fouad Arafa — on 31 January 2010. They told him that US military aid to Egypt was part of the Camp David accords and therefore not up for negotiation, and that the accords had been breached by allowing the ratio between military aid to Israel and military aid to Egypt to go from the agreed 3:2 to 5:2. US military aid is considered "untouchable". (This is probably still reaction to the 2007-2008 attempts to cut military aid by Congress, which were blocked by Condoleeza Rice.)
  • In May 2007, then US Ambassador in Egypt Francis Ricciardone calls Egypt a "dictatorship" (Le Monde says he is the only one who dares do so) and says that the NDP is ready to run a campaign that would install Gamal Mubarak as president.
  • Ricciardone says that Omar Suleiman had hopes "until a few years ago" of being nominated vice-president. He also adds that Suleiman "hates the idea of Gamal being president."
  • Ricciardone writes that, in the case of Mubarak's death before he can install Gamal, a military coup is possible.
  • Gamal promised US the end of the Emergency Law in 2006 (it is still ongoing.) It's also casually mentioned that Egyptian security services employ 1.4 million people.
  • Gamal told US that opening presidential elections to a wider range of candidates (presumably by making independent candidacies easier) would be "a recipe for chaos."

Note that I am re-translating from the French, and that I have not seen the complete cables — let me know if you have seen them online elsewhere.

Update: The relevant cables are now out on Wikileaks' site.

 

Understanding Wikileaks

This seems as good an explanation as any I've seen.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

How the Saudis control their media

Through a clever system of disincentives, according to a US Embassy cable from Riyadh:

//The Stick//

20. (S/NF) Although all chief editor positions in Saudi Arabia must be approved by the Minister of Information, it is the job of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to take action against editors and writers who refuse to follow government directives and policies. In the past, the MOI played a largely reactive role in this regard through its Supreme Information Council, which would discuss questionable material and order editors to be scolded or fired, or at times ban publication of the paper for a certain period of time.

21. (S/NF) According to our contacts, however, a more effective system is in place. Instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors now are fined SR 40,000 ($10,600) out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper. Journalists, too, are held to account. Instead of the Supreme Information Council in Riyadh taking the lead in tracking what journalists write, there are now MOI committees in each Saudi city that know their community well and have a keen ear for who is talking about what. If these MOI operatives detect a problematic pattern in a journalist’s writing (or even hear through channels that he or she is heading down a certain line of inquiry), they will invite the journalist for a chat, during which they will discuss the origin of these perspectives, suggest alternative approaches, ask after the family, etc.,.. These mechanisms, our contacts say, have been very effective in reining in media opinion that the SAG doesn’t like.

SAG, by the way, is the very appropriate shorthand for "Saudi Arabia Government." There's more in there about media ownership, Rupert Murdoch's plan to launch an Arabic version of the Wall Street Journal, and a softer touch on religious channels. 

Update: Commenter Alexandra points out that this cable has mostly gotten attention for its claim that Saudis are being mellowed by shows like Friends and Desperate Housewives. It's true that Saudi-owned channels show a remarkable range of American TV culture, usually the worse of the range (the reality shows about fat people, wanna-be celebrities, incredibly vapid teen sitcoms, etc.) that exists in the You Ess of A. I suppose that there might be a soporific benefit from this, or at least an effect whereby such shows slowly melt the brain cells of those who watch them.

But, watching them from time to time as I do, I am shocked at the extent to which a) these shows and that TV and mall culture appear to be becoming a substitute for indigenous culture for foreign-educated middle classes and others; b) much of the material shows America in a poor light; and c) much of it must reinforce the ultra-conservatives' view that America and the West are culturally and socially doomed and will end up something like the movie Idiocracy. A show like Desperate Housewives, in fact, could induce some people to have their very own Sayyid Qutb moment, without ever having to visit Greeley, Colorado or Wysteria Lane.  

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

An update on SIPA and Cablegate

Since the post I wrote a few days ago — about Columbia's SIPA warning students looking for government jobs not to publicly link to Wikileaks — got so much attention, it's only fair to give an update. Columbia has come out as pro-Wikileaks, saying it backed freedom of information. I don't think that was ever in doubt, since the email only gave advice to students considering a government career. Still, they have a good position:
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Succession in Tunisia

Mohammed Sakhr al-MeteriThis young man could be the successor to President Ben Ali, the dictator of Tunisia. As always in these cases, apart from being unbelievably corrupt it's not clear what his assets are for the job. From a US Embassy Tunis cable on Wikileaks:

Personally, El-Matri presented himself as self-confident, but low-key. This was in marked contrast to his reputation as a flamboyant and aggressive business mogul. His reputation derives in part from the fact that he drives an Austin Martin and a Hummer among other cars, and rumors that he owns a pet tiger. With the Ambassador, he was equally comfortable talking about political issues and personal issues. He indicated his awareness of his relative youth vis-a-vis his position in the RCD and his business success, but did not seem uncomfortable with that reality. He also discussed his wife Nesrine's commitment to using only organic products from the food they eat to the paint and varnish in their new mansion.

A spoilt brat, then. Tip of the hat to Brian Whitaker, who found another cable on Libyan sibling rivalry and succession, which he discussed here.

State Dept. warning prospective recruits to steer clear of Wikileaks

Update: Welcome readers from Slashdot and The Lede, and all the others who are driving traffic to this post! Follow Arabist on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed!

I was forwarded this email — it comes from a SIPA student at Columbia. Seems the ambitious young things studying IR and considering a foreign service careers are being warned not to touch Cablegate:

From: "Office of Career Services" <sipa_ocs@columbia.edu>

Date: November 30, 2010 15:26:53 ESTTo: 

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department.  He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

Regards,
Office of Career Services

I wonder if the same thing is taking place at Georgetown, Harvard, Tufts and other major recruitment centers for government service. 

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Egyptian Wikileaks: The Gaza Wall

A bunch of as-yet-unreleased Wikileaks cables have been shared with al-Masri al-Youm and other Egyptian newspapers, which will start releasing them today and over the rest of the week. 

For English coverage check out al-Masri al-Youm's site, which already has stories about how the Gaza-Egypt wall is due to be completed this month:

“The MOD had frequently discussed this project with us since the beginning of the year, but only recently received the corrugated steel sheets,” reads the document. “It is unknown, however, if the wall will be effective at deterring smuggling in the long-run, as the steel sheets are basic construction-grade material that can be cut using a tool like a blow torch.”

The document references international, regional and local press reports that criticize the wall for representing Egyptian support for Israeli security, describing them as “erroneously stating the wall is a US-funded project.”

The document also reveals the US has provided technical support for the installation of the tunnel detection system, which was due to be finished by the US Army Corps of Engineers and handed over to the Egyptian military in April 2010..

I've long believed the wall financing issue was set up to create US deniability that it was financing the wall. The cable says it cost $40m — not much compared to the $1bn and more of US military aid — and its most expensive technological component, the detection system, was US provided. So yes, it is US-backed and financed.

In another cable, US diplomats get warnings from Sinai Bedouins that the wall will radicalize the peninsula. More to come...

 

Cablegate

I've only had time to look at a handful of the Wikileaks cables, but while many may just confirm certain widely held theories, they also provide tremendous insight into the day-to-day analysis of Embassy officials and a fascinating record of conversations with world leaders, security chiefs, senior politicians and diplomats across the Middle East. It's a treasure trove for any journalist or analyst to understand US positions and compare them to public positions, but even more of a find for doing the same for Middle Eastern states.

There is so much information flowing around about US policy — and often, a good deal of transparency — that a smart observer with good contacts can get a good idea of what's happening. Not so in the Arab world, and the contents of the conversations Arab leader are having with their patron state are not out in the Arab public domain or easily guessable, as anyone who reads the meaningless press statements of government press agencies will tell you. Cablegate is in important record from the Arab perspective, perhaps more than from the US one.

I'm quite shocked, to a greater extent than the Iraq leaks, about the diplomatic damage this will do. It's still early days, and much of this will be recuperated for the regional media wars. Part of me loves the anarchist side of Wikileaks. But there's obviously more than "information wants to be free" at stake here: Wikileaks is also a project against American power projection around the world, or US imperialism. I suspect this is driven in good part (at least for the person or people who leaked or hacked the cables) by hatred of US policy under the Bush administration. A type of information blowback, if you will. This kind of leak is just not supposed to happen, and will probably have consequences we can barely start to imagine. I think it will also contribute, in the Middle East at least, to the growing perception among the various regimes that the US is an unreliable partner that has trouble restoring its pre-Bush credibility.

It's only normal that American politicians, as well as the Obama administration, have condemned the leaks. But listening to US politicians on the radio says that Wikileaks "is not being patriotic" betrays a complete misunderstanding of what's at stake here, and an assumption that foreigners should be patriotic to the US. They don't: they're not American. The disconnect here is between an American perception of the US as world leader and non-American rejection of this, probably in good part to a loss in moral authority in the last decade.

Wikileaks may be irresponsible, but it's also a manifestation of a shifting world order. We just don't know what it's shifting into yet. 

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Column: On Wikileaks

My new column at al-Masri al-Youm looks at the way the Wikileaks revelation has been received and wonders if we've become desensitized about war and war crimes. Is Abu Ghraib the new normal?

Also, columnist colleague Ahmed al-Sawi looks at the need for an Arab Wikileaks.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.