States often hide their accountability in plain sight: in redacted documents, incomplete flight manifests, encrypted data, shredded memos and reclassified archives. They also go to great lengths to keep their internal affairs private: banning oppositional media, jailing investigative journalists and disappearing dissenters. Economic and political elites also obscure accountability in secretive offshore tax havens and shell companies, in arcane planning documents and untraceable investments—often in collusion with authoritarian states who protect them. With so much kept hidden and secret, how can citizens hold the powerful to account? What tools do they have to uncover and publicize this information, and, what are the consequences of deploying those tools?

Although the powerful hide their activities from public scrutiny and accountability, their actions nonetheless leave markings—paper trails of their affairs. These traces can be discovered and tracked by citizens; sometimes armed only with a search engine and sometimes by undertaking dangerous actions that risk their lives. This issue of Middle East Report is a study of these paper trails, and how they can be uncovered. It follows the search for documentation to hold states, corporations, communities and individuals accountable for crime, corruption, theft, malfeasance and injustice. It reveals the many ways that the powerful hide their activities. But it also shows the different methods used to catch and track a trail, and the different ways communities reveal or utilize what they have learned.

Hunting for paper trails can be empowering. As the leaks by Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and anonymous whistleblowers have revealed, when citizens can glimpse what states or corporations wish to conceal, this information only strengthens their work for justice and accountability. It was through the leaked Panama Papers that Jordanians were able to grab a thread with which they eventually unravelled the state’s attempts to conceal a multi-billion dollar gas deal with Israel. Activists and organizers were soon joined by citizens and public employees to demand, find and release documents to the public in an unprecedented challenge to the state’s monopolization of information through a campaign of public exposure. As they released new information to the public, the state’s justifications for secrecy were no longer acceptable.

Hunting for paper trails can also lead to unforeseen discoveries. Image conscious Israel is currently closing state archives that previously revealed many sordid truths about Israel’s original sins, most notably the paper trails of the Zionist campaign to expel Palestinians in 1948. But drawing upon his own work in Israel’s archives, Shay Hazkani urges historians to creatively confront this challenge by looking more deeply for cracks in the archive of what Israel has left open, which may still prove uncomfortable to Israel’s image managers. In Florence Wolstenholme’s how-to manual for investigating the seemingly impenetrable ownership of mysterious shell companies and real estate holdings in Dubai’s free zone, she reveals the surprising story of how one happy customer is Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a widely acknowledged focal point of Syrian regime corruption.

This issue explores how citizens and activists can fight to uncover the secret documents that hold clues to how they are governed, and what must be understood and documented before one can transform their communities, states and societies.

Hunting for paper trails is intoxicating. In the mad rush of revolution, as the state went on the run, revolutionaries ran into the buildings of the state security offices in Egypt. They hoped to rescue files that implicated the state in crimes against citizens, while some also hoped to answer more personally painful questions still left unanswered: where is my cousin, who was spying on my uncle and how did this state manage to hold us hostage for so long? Aly El Raggal asks us to consider what failed to materialize after the capture of the state security offices. Why did breaching the state security offices not lead to a publicly accessible archive for post-revolutionary social and political regeneration? What, even in the midst of chaos, must be in place to capture and reveal these documents?

Wisam AlShaibi warns us, however, that the hunt for paper trails can also be toxic. If in Egypt it was revolutionaries who sought to capture state materials, what happens when an occupying power lays claim to them? The US occupying forces in Iraq captured the Iraqi regime’s papers in the hopes of mobilizing international opinion, heretofore antagonistic to the war, to support its newly branded attempt to bring democracy to Iraq. AlShaibi cautions against an easy valorization of the hunt for such papers. He reveals for the first time the role of human rights and Iraqi diasporic organizations in shepherding a transformative political role for these archives—enabling their later weaponization—which dates to 1991. It matters who holds these materials when those who hold them desire to marshal their “generative power” to engineer society and politics. If such materials are not in public hands, but tucked away at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who or what is determining what is remembered about the regime in Iraq?

But we also learn from Ala’a Shehabi the high stakes of searching for what the state and capital aim to hide. In the midst of the Bahraini government’s attempt to repress its unprecedented uprising, Ala’a Shehabi and her colleagues created the activist platform Bahrain Watch to uncover paper trails hiding injustice. She shows how leaktivism, or the mobilization of leaks can undermine state secrecy, while also bringing the power of an insecure state to bear on activists. To hunt for a paper trail when a state is in the midst of revolution and war is one thing, but to leak the trails of theft as a state consolidates itself against a popular insurgency is to keep alive a demand for transparency and transformation, and to refuse the chilling effects of self-censorship and surveillance. For every dodgy real estate deal and property grab revealed, another whistleblower and organizer will be detained, tortured or even killed.

Yet as Zakia Salime poignantly notes, the search for paper trails transforms those who go in search of them, too. When the Imider mining corporation in Morocco encroached on indigenous land, a community rose up in defiance. In the protest encampment, a new paper trail of popular protest emerged. This counter-archive, Salime argues, disrupts the state’s capacity to sell itself on the international market. It ingathers tales of economic and environmental disaster, state violence and dispossession. The Imider protest camp is a study of the edge conditions of citizenship. Its archives tell a counter-story against the powerful—in song and poetry, in memos and diverse repertoire. Indeed, the camp itself is a document of the long trail trekked by Moroccan citizens against state power and extractive capitalism.

The notion that information is power, however, is only partially correct in the digital age. While the average citizen has more information at their fingertips than ever before, states and corporations can now keep everyone else under near-perpetual surveillance to dictate suitable political and economic ends. The Feeling of Being Watched, the award-winning documentary film, offers insight into those who seek paper trails of government surveillance about them. What happens to a community that is under long-term surveillance, as was the Arab and Muslim community of Little Palestine in southwest Chicago? And what happens when they turn the tables on this surveillance by receiving once-secret files through making Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests? They learn how they were spied upon and the shocking depths of their transparency, but they also learn who among themselves were implicated in the surveillance and other disturbing truths. Is it always worth seeking records of being watched?

As we learn about the boundless capacity of social media and technological platforms to aggregate data on nearly every aspect of our lives, and sell it to the highest bidders, we have to ask ourselves—as David Price does in his primer on undertaking FOIA requests—how can we find information held about us? Chana Morgenstern and Laleh Khalili helpfully provide pedagogical models for how to teach students and fellow scholars how to conduct paper trail searches and how to contextualize this information in a broader critical understanding of global power relations.

The Middle East is on the cutting edge of these emerging struggles over the politics of paper trails. This issue explores how citizens and activists can fight to uncover the secret documents that hold clues to how they are governed, and what must be understood and documented before one can transform their communities, states and societies. This issue asks us to think about what that hunt can do for justice, and what it does to those who go in search of documentation. What are the costs, and who pays them? The search for paper trails is dangerous and can result in torture and even death, but if citizens of the Middle East wish for political transformation, the search for these crumbs to understand the past and the present is unavoidable. The hope, of course, is that the trail will lead to justice and greater freedom.       ■

How to cite this article:

The Editors "The Politics of Paper Trails," Middle East Report 291 (Summer 2019).

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