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When historians read WikiLeaks

Published in Egypt Independent on December 26, 2010

Ever since WikiLeaks began posting some quarter million leaked cables sent by US embassies on 28 November, people around the world have eagerly read about secrets revealed by what the WikiLeaks website calls “the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.”

Given America’s heavy involvement in the Middle East, it was only natural to expect the uncovering of a large number of cables sent by US embassies and consulates in the region. And again, as expected, many of the leaks have revealed details embarrassing to US friends and allies. The tough stance that many Arab governments have been urging the US to take against Iran, with some pushing for military action, is one example. Other examples pertain to Egypt. While Egyptian foreign ministry officials have been relieved so far to find that no leaked cables reveal a discrepancy between public and private discourse, it must not please Egyptian authorities to read how officials in the US embassy in Cairo do not take Egyptian diplomats, or Egyptian foreign policy for that matter, very seriously. It must also be distasteful to learn that the main interlocutor in all of Egypt’s hot button issues–those concerning Palestine, Sudan, Iraq, and Africa–is not the minister of foreign affairs but rather the chief of the national intelligence agency.

Still, one wonders if there is anything really that damning with respect to Egypt, or for that matter, that new, in documents released so far. Take for example Ambassador Margaret Scobey’s “scenesetter” cable to Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton on 19 May 2009 preparing for President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to Washington, his first in five years. In that supposedly revealing cable Scobey unravels the supposedly unknown facts that Mubarak suffers from a hearing deficit in his left ear, that he is “innately cautious and conservative and has little time for idealistic goals,” that “EGIS Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics,” and, lo and behold, that “no one in Egypt has any certainty about who will eventually succeed Mubarak.” The revelations are hardly earth-shattering.

Historians of earlier times often relied on similar diplomatic correspondence and counted them among their most valuable sources. For example, nineteenth-century Egyptian history was written for a long time using consular dispatches sent by European diplomats. Historians soon realized, though, that as “juicy” as some of these dispatches are, they reflect, at the end of the day, little more than their authors’ biases. Often their viewpoints are shaped less by an astute assessment of the domestic situation than by their idiosyncrasies, political aspirations, eagerness to please bosses back home, or failure to understand the language, history and the culture of the country they report on and the manner in which they are manipulated and charmed by this or that local despot.

Moreover, good historians are careful to place any particular document it in historical context. Again, British documents about nineteenth-century Egypt provide a good example. One of these documents has Lord Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, likening Muhammad Ali to a waiter in a coffee shop “seeking to be commander of the faithful.” Reading this document by itself would give the impression that what informed British policy towards Egypt’s struggle with the Ottoman Empire was British foreign secretary’s personal animosity of the Pasha. The complete corpus of British diplomatic correspondence during the period, however, reveals that Palmerston’s opinion of Muhammad Ali changed over time. It took more than six years for Palemerston to form a consistent attitude towards Muhammad Ali, and this attitude was shaped by dispatches received not only from Cairo and Alexandria, but also from Istanbul, Saint Petersburg, Vienna and Paris.

With all the hype surrounding WikeLeaks “revelations,” we often lose sight of the basic fact that the authors who penned these cables are mere mortals, albeit ones representing the mightiest empire humanity ever witnessed. As authoritative as these US diplomats strive to appear, their cables should be read for what they are: indicative of an often warped reading of reality and a reflection of anxiety regarding the precarious position that the US faces in conducting multiple wars simultaneously, waging a global “war against terror,” and confronting challenges that nascent powers pose to its global hegemony.

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