Assange: Wikileaks' cables spurred Arab uprisings

CAMBRIDGE, England (Reuters) - Publishing U.S. diplomatic cables helped shape uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange said on Tuesday.

Demonstrators gather next to anti-Gaddafi graffiti in the main square of Tobruk March 15, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

The computer expert, who infuriated the U.S. government by publishing thousands of the secret cables, said the leaks may have persuaded some authoritarian regimes that they could not rely on U.S. support if military force was used on protesters.

They also made it difficult for the West to continue its support of the long-standing regimes, Assange told hundreds of students at the Cambridge University union.

“The Tunisian cables showed clearly that if it came down to it, the U.S., if it came down to a fight between the military on the one hand, and (President Zine al-Abidine) Ben Ali’s political regime on the other, the U.S. would probably support the military,” he said.

“That is something that must have also caused neighboring countries to Tunisia some thought. That is that if they militarily intervened, they may not be on the same side as the United States,” Assange said.

The wave of unrest began in Tunisia last December, forcing the president to flee the country a month later.

Protests then sprang up elsewhere in the region, encouraging Wikileaks to pump out information on principal players in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain “as fast as we could,” Assange said.

The cables were published, not just so that the people in those countries would know what was going on, “because many of them already knew what was going on in great and grotesque detail, but rather so that it would not be possible for the West to stand up and support the (authoritarian leaders),” he said.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February after 18 days of protests.

Assange, who is fighting extradition from Britain to Sweden over alleged sex crimes, said cables released on Egypt’s former intelligence chief and vice president Omar Suleiman prevented the United States from supporting him as a potential successor.

“It was not possible for (U.S. Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton to publicly come out and support Mubarak’s regime,” he said.

About 800 students attended the talk, many having queued for hours, and they applauded Assange enthusiastically.

Editing by Louise Ireland