Twittering towards democracy - fact or fiction?

A new generation of practical revolutionaries in the Middle East is daring repressive regimes to bow to popular reform rather than resort to brutal crackdowns. They are armed with little more than the power of social media and a belief that the basics in life trump Islamist ideology. 

No wonder dictators and fundamentalists fear social media as it seems to have played midwife to an extraordinary revolution unfolding before our eyes in the Middle East.

There can be no doubt Iran’s theocracy is watching carefully as Tunisians armed with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and email ousted their kleptocratic ruling family, succeeding where Iran’s Green Revolution faltered only because of an unrelenting and brutal crackdown.

The same fear is no doubt running through the ageing veins of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who has managed 34 years in power thanks to massive election distortions and constant rule changes regarding eligibility of opposition parties. He seems to have been thwarted by the army (on whom his survival relies heavily) to simply install his son Gamal to continue the Mubarak dynasty, and now faces mass demonstrations on a scale not seen in the country since the violent bread and fuel riots of 1977.

Egypt has also witnessed the new, non-religious protest of self immolation which became the potent symbol of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.

It is extremely powerful because it is protest unaccompanied by calls of Allah Akhbar, nor calls to jihad. It, so far, eschews any championing from hardcore Islamists who have been the convenient excuse the West has needed for supporting autocratic regimes in North Africa and throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

It seems rather than calling for Islamist regimes to come to power, the wave challenging government oppression that has the potential to domino is about the basics of everyday life – dignity, food, jobs, fuel, health and education, and not the least, real democracy.

When ordinary people eking out ordinary existences in the face of oppression from extraordinarily corrupt regimes begin to go into battle for change, it must surely be only a matter of time before that change comes.

Invading countries to impose a Western-style democracy has failed, and it is hoped the architects of such colonial thinking take note. Not until ordinary citizens see their troubles as home grown and out of synch with their aspirations, will the despots be successfully chucked out.

The danger then is a political power vacuum, and it is here the democratic nations of the world can be of help in altering policies which have to date propped up the autocrats in power in North Africa and the wider Middle East. New political leaders who can meet the needs of their own people require support. So far more than one blind eye has been turned when it comes to corrupt elections, political imprisonments and forceful suppression of any demonstration because the ‘West’ has conveniently believed this is all for the good because it keeps the Islamists under control. Wrong.

Now is the time for stepping up, and U.S. President Obama even used his State of the Union speech to extend moral support for the protesters in Tunisia.

Egypt is a more difficult situation for Obama not quite two years after he went to Cairo to extend his hand to the Muslim world – irrespective of Mubarak’s blatant use of emergency rule to keep the country just as he wants it. Egypt is the recipient of billions of dollars in US aid, and is supposedly a vital player in the so-called Middle East peace process which, while now resembling custard, has not been binned completely. These factors may make it unlikely Obama would extend the same support to Egyptian protesters as he has to the Tunisians, but don't write off the prospect just yet.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said it is now time for the leaders of these Middle East countries – U.S. ally Egypt included – to respond to legitimate needs and interests of their own people. However the US should be wary as it treads dangerously given its refusal to accept the democratically elected Hamas in Gaza and its obvious unease with the new Hezbollah supported administration in Lebanon, let alone Iraq and Afghanistan. Injecting preferred candidates or propping up dictators are not practices easily shrugged off in a part of the world where memories and anti-US sentiments run deep.

And what about Yemen? Tens of thousands of its citizens are also in the streets calling for the end of the 32-year-rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh who just happens to be in the midst of constitutional manipulation to ensure he stays in office for life, and although denying it, faces strong charges that like Mubarak, he will try and bequeath the baubles of office directly to his son. Blood may be thicker than water when you are the ruling elite, but in a country where Yemenis know only impoverishment as their country runs out of water, they may yet prove wrong the old adage.

If autocrats have argued their way of doing business is the bulwark against the dangerous tide of Islamism, and Islamism is not a key component of what the majority of their citizens want, then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that the very opportune bulwark is no longer valid.

 What the US can do now is ease the path for the social media invented on its soil, to be used by those with blood – and now desperate self-immolation – on their soil.

Social media has political power, and has done since text messaging rallied crowds whose sheer force secured the ousting of the Philippines’ Estrada at the turn of this century.

The Chinese, Burmese, Iranian and other repressive regimes work tirelessly to shut down any dissident behaviour that threatens to go viral, but with US assistance to the tweeters and facebookers, the mobile phone users and the rest of the texting generation, surely the autocrats can be left playing catch-up.

Once the the world is delivered the genie of information and pictures, they can’t be stuffed back in the bottle. It is fair to say that stage has been reached.

Iranian citizens put up a gallant fight against all odds with their tweets and phone videos, and while they did not win immediately, they must take heart that the Tunisian domino with its perceptible shift from ideological politics to the call for practical improvements and good governance will eventually reach them…and hopefully their Muslim counterparts and Arab neighbours in the region. This new generation deserves indigenous democracy that is creatively and tirelessly supported by the both the wider Arab world and the West.