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Tunisian Activist Thanks Chelsea Manning For Sparking The Arab Spring

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, August 29 2013

Manning (Wikipedia)

Sami Ben Gharbia, the Founding Director of Global Voices Advocacy and co-founder of the citizen journalism blog, published a tribute to Chelsea Manning, previously known as Bradley Manning, on Medium yesterday. In it he calls her a deity of a “new mythology,” and an inspirational and iconic figure. It is really the story of TuniLeaks and the beginning of the Arab Spring, told by an active participant, but framed as an illustration of the effect that Manning has had by releasing those infamous cables.

Gharbia wrote:

What we call the Arab Spring was the result of many seemingly small things, butterfly effects. One of them was a courageous woman named Chelsea Manning. If the U.S. will take 35 years from Chelsea Manning’s life, may it console her that she has given us, Arabs, the secret gift that helped expose and topple 50 years of dictatorships.

Gharbia claims that in October 2010, while in Berlin to avoid political persecution in his native Tunisia, he received from a friend, an encrypted set of cables, subsequently known as 'Cablegate,' which Manning had released. In it, Gharbia said he learned about "all the political scandals, nepotism, and corruption of the disgraced Ben Ali regime," and most importantly, knew that the information had "the ability to inform and transform." It was "momentum."

As Gharbia shared the information with fellow activists, which included Riadh Guerfali (aka Astrubal) who co-founded Nawaat, he explained the shift in mentality: "We knew that what we had in our hands, and in the cloud, was about to change something for Tunisia and beyond. Something big."

That is how Gharbia's story begins. It then details the “leak within a leak” that led to TuniLeaks. Just twenty days later a poor street vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire, which marked the official start of the Arab Spring.

It is also a story of activists succeeding in spite of ruthless censorship and the difficulties Gharbia and his fellow activists faced in publicizing the information:

We already knew that the Tunisian censorship police would block the domain name, but in order to block an https URL they needed to block the first Google IP, then the 2nd, then the 3rd, etcetera. After each IP address was banned, we asked our tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook to change the IP address in the host file on their computer, without the need to use complicated circumvention tools. By this time, all Nawaat social media accounts were blocked in Tunisia: Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Posterous, Vimeo. But this was a funny cat and mouse game that we’d mastered during the last ten years of censorship and anti-censorship efforts, and we knew it well. At the end, Tunisia blocked the entire Google Appspot and AppEngine IPs, affecting other Google services. In Tunisia this provoked an angry response from average Internet users and businesses with no particular politics. It was Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cats Theory at its best!

Fortunately, by the time the Tunisian government caught on, it was too late. The information was on too many platforms and mediums, such as through memory sticks and on paper:

We already understood that in the era of social media, blocking websites doesn’t bock the information, a lesson that the Ben Ali regime and the like never understood. The regime panicked. By early December the information that the dictatorship had worked so hard to block and control was everywhere, snowballing. From business managers to vegetable sellers, everyone had heard of Tunileaks. The rich and complex propaganda machine of Ben Ali couldn’t do much to restore its tarnished image. It was collapsing. It was only a matter of days.

According to Gharbia, one of Ben Ali's ministers told a British journalists this year that TuniLeaks was the straw that broke the Ben Ali system. And all thanks, says Sami Ben Gharbia, to Chelsea Manning.

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