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via Hawkes77 / Flickr / CC Licensed

Like many people, I was stuck to my computer on Friday as the news about Hosni Mubarak’s departure from the political stage was announced in Cairo.

The Egyptian protestors deserve worldwide acclaim by the way they conducted themselves. Some have said they deserve a Nobel Prize, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s rare enough to see those qualities we all aspire to on display: courage, dignity, resilience, the refusal to stay silent in the face of injustice and a single-minded yearning for the freedoms many of us take for granted.

Yesterday, the young people of Egypt gave the world a timely reminder that they are not so different to the rest of us. At the core, they want the same things as us, and who are we to tell them they can’t have them, purely as a result of an accident of birth?

This is the beauty of democracy. Although it’s no panacea: corruption, economic collapse, inequality and injustice do not respect political forms; it nevertheless gives people a say in the way their country is run, it entitles them to have their say, no matter how unpalatable the message, and it keeps would-be autocrats at bay. It demands that bloodless coups – free elections – become part of the woodwork, so that the powerful can never outstay their welcome. To our great shame, we in the democratised lands have looked blithely askance when questioning why it shouldn’t be available to everyone in the world, not just in the so-called West. Wasn’t it from similar tyrannies that many of our own democracies originated?

It is important for us all that the Egyptians are given our full support as they transition to democracy. The same is true for Tunisia and the other soon-to-be-freed nations of the Middle East and North Africa. History is slowly moving our world in the direction of democratic freedom for all.

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Berlin Wall

Photo: GothPhil (Flickr - cc licensed)

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event I remember as if it were yesterday. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the high point of an astonishing period in world history, beginning with the fall of the Polish government in June 1989 and culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the space of a few months, the world changed utterly. The message, at least for a while, was one of hope: that repressive regimes can come to an end when the conditions are right.

Ten years before this, another political change took place in Iran, when the Ayatollah Khomeini wrested power from the Shah in a popular uprising that swept the nation. Khomeini created an Islamic Republic, supposedly freeing the country from the yoke of dictatorship and setting up a kind of utopia on Earth along Islamic principles. This new Iranian state quickly revealed itself to be just another tawdry dictatorship in clerical disguise, and now the youth of Iran are fighting for the same freedoms as their parents, thirty years ago.  Some are paying with their lives.

Iranian protest

Photo: faramarz (Flickr - cc licensed)

If history is any guide, rotten regimes often  succumb eventually to a combination of relentless external and internal pressures. These pressures do not need to be violent, but they do need to be sustained. We can only hope that this will be soon be the fate of the current Iranian republic.

I have to admit I am a late starter to Twitter. Like many people, I didn’t particularly see the point. So what if you are eating ham for dinner? So what if you enjoyed the latest episode of the X-Factor? Or you were just bored? To me, it seemed a glorious exercise in inanity, best left to people with way too much time on their hands. I had an account on Facebook. I had my blog. What more did I need?

Nevertheless, I dipped my toe in last June, motivated primarily by the feeling that I was somehow missing the point. I started following a few people and I quickly learned the lingo. I shared a few interesting photos and links. Over the course of a few weeks, my antipathy to the medium began to mellow. I now have to admit there is much more to it than meets the eye. It’s fast, reactive, informative and often highly entertaining. There is a dynamism to it that is quite unique. While blogs and web-pages are the fields and towns of the cyberscape, Twitter has been chosen as the shiny new motorway.

Twitter is powerful too. Even though the number of people who use it is still relatively small, the combined voice of the Twitter community can be deafening when there is a worthy cause to tweet for. We witnessed this in real time this week, when the Trafigura affair broke. It all started when the Guardian newspaper in the UK was prevented from reporting a parliamentary question in the House of Commons – an assault, if there ever was one, on democracy and freedom of speech. Within hours, Twitterers had uncovered who the main players were, what the issue was, and why they wanted so badly to keep the news secret. Trafigura are implicated in a massive toxic waste dumping scandal in Africa: arguably the biggest health disaster committed by a multinational corporation since Bhopal. Nobody knew very much about them until last week. Now we all know, and oh boy, it’s going to get very difficult from here on in for the ladies and gentlemen running that company. For a few hours, Trafigura and their insidious legal representatives Carter Ruck became the No. 1 trending topics on Twitter. Telephone numbers and email addresses were publicised and bombarded. Protests were planned outside their offices. Government ministers were pressed for answers. The report they desperately wanted to suppress was leaked to the Internet and is now stored on myriads of hard drives. The official media could only stand back in amazement as tens of thousands of Twitterers, like piranhas scenting blood, flayed the reputation of Trafigura into shreds. The “Twirlwind” finally abated when Carter Ruck flew the white flag, allowing the media to report the parliamentary question, as was their legal right in the first place.

Today another twirlwind went into full effect when Jan Moir of the Daily Mail penned a snide invective against the gay community using the recently deceased Boyzone singer Stephen Gately as her ammo du jour. In the course of the storm (which is still ongoing as I write), a number of companies pulled their advertising from the online edition of the Daily Mail and her article is the subject of over a thousand submissions to the Press Complaints Commission. In the course of the day, a rattled Moir issued an explanation, if not quite a retraction.

The clear message from both incidents is that Twitter has the power to effect real change. Its muscles flexed this week, and open season has been declared on anyone who wants to conceal information from the public, reveal the extent of their bigotry, or force their people into submission. If corporations, governments and anyone putting themselves up as representatives of the common people are not worried yet, they should be.

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