For observers partial, impartial or militant, there is now a barometer for the turbulence in the Middle East. The Qatar-based news outlet Al Jazeera has set up an online tool to track Twitter updates from Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.
But if you’re an aspiring insurgent worried that your movements are now more visible to the government you’re trying to topple, rest assured – social media will find a way.
When Libyan secret police monitored Facebook and Twitter, revolutionaries seeking to oust Muammar Gaddafi from power turned to a dating site called Madawi, assuming aliases from “Sweet Butterfly” to “Melody of Torture” and exchanging coded messages. Their missives, and their mission, are another entry in a series of social media-attributed uprisings that has already claimed the scalp of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
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Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, visiting Egypt this week, tweeted that it was “inspiring standing in Tahrir Square with young people who stood up for democracy in Egypt”.
Mr Rudd’s sentiments are shared across the world. It’s very hard not to be inspired by the way in which the Egyptian people have claimed control of their own future. Just a month ago, even as pressure on Hosni Mubarak mounted, very few people would have predicted such a speedy and relatively smooth transition of power.
Certainly the Egyptian example has inspired similar uprisings against neighbouring dictators, most notably Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. However, those who expect a similarly speedy and successful resolution of the conflict in that country are likely to be shocked by what is about to unfold in Libya.
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First it was Tunisia’s leader, then Egypt’s. Now the protests in the Middle East seem to have spread to riots in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere, including to the point where the Libyan leader, Mu’amar Qadhafi, is close to being overthrown.
But how valid is the ‘domino theory’ of popular protest? Are we seeing the start of a region-wide collapse of leaders and regimes?
Probably not. One or two more leaders might go: Qadhafi is truly in trouble, as is Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. However real revolutions are rare, and for good reasons.
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While all eyes have been on Egypt the past three weeks, across in the Arab world another country is going through massive transformations that have a major impact on Western support and influence in the region.
Lebanon is due to form its Hezbollah-backed government in the coming days. The group is officially listed by the United States, Israel and many other European countries as a terrorist group and the formation of such a government has been interpreted by these Western countries as a rise in Iranian influence, effectively hijacking the US-backed government and its influence in the region.
It is this naïve interpretation of events that could serve as a catalyst in sparking violent conflict within the region.
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The notion that one person’s status update can spark a revolution has gained momentum in recent years. The “Twitter Revolution” is now a familiar concept. Before it was applied to the current protests in Egypt, the term was used to describe the election riots in Moldova and Iran in 2009 and last year’s Tunisian street demonstrations.
As well as being an attractive media catch-word, the moniker has been regarded as apt because the political upheaval in each of these cases was organised using technological networking tools, including SMS, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Social networks are powerful instruments for connecting and uniting strangers with common objectives. The Obama 08 campaign was fought perhaps most intensely on the internet, where followers were offered intimate access to “Obama Everywhere” (or at least on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Black Planet, MiGente, LinkedIn, MyBatanga and DNC Partybuilder).
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The ABC’s London bureau was effectively in mourning when I arrived as a correspondent at the beginning of 1980.
Tony Joyce, a witty, talented and energetic reporter from the bureau, had been shot in the head in Zambia six weeks before.
The pistol bullet ricocheted inside his skull, and the unforgivable behaviour of the Zambian authorities meant that by the time he was medevacced to London, it was too late.
From November 1979 to early February 1980, he was in a coma. On February 3 - exactly 31 years ago - he died.
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So, rad times in the Middle East? In the bright light of this historic moment can we assert that the Bush Administration’s neo-cons were partially right: the Middle East was ripe for a series of popular revolutions?
If only they didn’t have to destroy a country, countless people, and potentially the prospect for better relationships between the West and the region in attempting to prove it.
The farcical aspect of popular demonstrations in the Middle East is that although Western Governments and observers have for years mused about the notional benefits of individual will being translated into national policy through some nice democratic practices, the instant any such thing becomes a remote possibility, westerners start getting anxious.
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“Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”
These infamous words of Patrick Henry resonated throughout the Western world and described in a nutshell man’s yearning for freedom.
This is also true in Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old university graduate who could not find work nor feed his family, sparked ‘The Jasmine Revolution’ by setting himself alight in protest to the now former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. This protest sparked action in Egypt, which is now facing its largest uprising in three decades. There are reports of dozens of deaths.
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