Two weeks ago today, Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president. I wrote then: “The message being echoed right across the Arab world is simply this: No matter how long a leader has been in power, no matter how pervasive his security apparatus, no matter how terrifying his dungeons, if enough people take to the streets, he can be toppled.”
That’s certainly what a lot of people in Libya believed. But as I write these words, mid-afternoon on Friday, it seems that forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi are determined to prove them wrong.
Here’s a taste of some of the messages I’ve been reading on Twitter over just the past few minutes (I should make it clear that I have no way of corroborating them, or vouching for their accuracy, but Twitter has now become a major source of information from Libya while foreign journalists are prevented from accessing areas under the control of the government).
“ohhhhh my god 2 pepole where hoted (holed?) in the head god help us.”
“progaddafi preventing protesters to reach the green square, they are everywhere.”
“progaddafi are shooting the protesters on the spot in many areas in tripoli: fashloum, soug aljoumaa.”
“there is a massacre happening right now in soug aljoumaa NOW.”
“bomb guys i heard bomb alot of gun shot please help.”
“a friend died now, his father answered me crying. i'm trying to control myself.”
By the time you read this, the picture may be clearer. We may also know more about what's been happening today in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Even in Saudi Arabia, there seem to be the first stirrings of what may, or may not, build into another protest movement.
It’s still far too early to assess what this unprecedented wave of popular revolts in the Arab world will mean in the long term. (We’ll make a first attempt in a special 60-minute edition of The World Tonight to be broadcast on 11 March.) But for now the question that intrigues me is this: if a prerequisite of revolution is the absence of fear, when did that fear vanish – and, just as importantly, why?
Well, how about this for an explanation: observing the courage of others encourages others to have more courage. A crowd in one city today leads to more crowds in more cities tomorrow. In other words, if the disaffected, unemployed young in one Arab country see what their counterparts elsewhere can achieve, they’re more likely to be able to shrug off their own fears.
From Tunisia to Egypt. From Egypt to Yemen, and Bahrain, Algeria – and Libya. And surely it’s undeniable that the overcoming of all that fear has been helped immeasurably by social network sites like Facebook and Twitter.
A protester with a mobile phone can send out words, pictures and videos in real time. TV news bulletins, radio news programmes, newspapers and bloggers all pick them up, sift them, retransmit them.
Of course, there were popular uprisings, revolts and revolutions long before the first Tweeter ever tweeted. In 1989, it was in part the power of TV pictures that blew the flames of anti-Communism across central and eastern Europe. But in 2011, the TV pictures are as likely to have come from a protester’s mobile phone as through the lens of a professional camera operator.
A word of caution, however: what follows a popular uprising isn’t always better than what went before. Decades of political repression can’t be transmogrified overnight into a model of liberal democracy. If that is true in Tunisia or Egypt, it is a hundred times more true in Libya. Yes, in Latin America, and east Asia, they successfully made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. In Somalia, on the other hand … well, I don’t need to spell it out.
Just a quick word about Twitter: as you’ll have gathered, I’ve signed up. If you’re there too, do come and find me.