Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Astonishing, Monumental, Earth-shattering – it takes the biggest words of our respective vocabularies to describe the events of the past few weeks as millions of people took to the streets across North Africa and the Middle-East in a collective demand for democracy of a proportion not seen since 1989. It’s been difficult to keep up with the constantly changing situation as each day seems to have brought about a new, unexpected development in a revolution that has caught most of us in the West completely by surprise: Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidene Ben Ali has resigned; Yemeni president Ali Abdulluh Saleh has promised not to run for re-election; Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ended a long-running state of emergency; King Abdullah of Jordan has sacked his cabinet and promised reforms.

And then, of course, there’s Egypt. For the past two weeks the entire world has been transfixed by events in the land of the Pyramids as its people took to the streets in immense numbers to protest the autocratic rule of its long-time president, Hosni Mubarak. We have seen young people, who have known no leader but Mubarak, come out and demand their democratic rights. This has caused a dilemma for the Obama administration: Mubarak has been supported over the past thirty years by various American governments, in spite of strong evidence of a host of human rights abuses, in order to maintain “stability” in the region. However, as the administration had openly supported the Tunisian revolution, it would have been incredibly hypocritical to turn around and deny the same rights to the people of Egypt. So initially, there was a period of fence-sitting, with Hilary Clinton re-affirming Egypt’s status as an ally, while avoiding criticism of the demonstrators and calling for engagement with their wishes. But as time has passed and the crackdown has become more aggressive, the US government has, in fairness, become more vocal in their calls for the protection of protesters and in demanding democratic reforms in public and possibly more in private. They seem ready to cut Hosni Mubarak loose and take a chance on the ability and desire of the Egyptian people to create a reasonable, democratic nation.

But of course the real heroes of this story are the brave Tahrir Square Revolutionaries and their comrades in Alexandria, Suez and all over Egypt. They have risked life and limb (and tragically many have paid the ultimate price) simply to claim the basic rights we in the West take for granted and sometimes even treat with contempt. There is, of course, a certain apprehension on this side of the world about what the future holds. Much of it is based on overblown prejudices about the Muslim world but some of it is understandable – it would be naive to deny the existence of elements within Egypt who virulently oppose the idea of a secular, democratic state and one of the major challenges for reformists will be to successfully make their case to those beyond the streets of Cairo. That said, it would be the ultimate cruelty to deny the young people of Egypt the right to determine their future after what they’ve been through to bring themselves to the brink of democracy and would probably set  back relations in the Middle-East by at least a generation. So Western nations should take the leap of faith and give full, unconditional backing to the democratic aspirations of the people of Egypt. They deserve it for a host of reasons but mostly because, in the face of stubborn and often violent opposition, they came out to demand their rights. They witnessed the tumultuous upheaval in Tunisia and they came out in their thousands; the internet was shut down and Mubarak offered meaningless “concessions” and they came out in their tens of thousands; they were attacked by stone-throwing, horse-riding, whip-wielding thugs and the press was attacked and they came out in their hundreds of thousands. This is their time to attain that most precious commodity…freedom.


20 years ago tomorrow, the world changed. It still moves me today to think back to the momentous events across Eastern Europe that brought about an end to the totalitarian Soviet communist regime. I was a 13 year-old boy living in Ireland at the time but the images I saw on television throughout the preceding months have left an indelible mark on my memory and my outlook on the world. I remember well the images of Solidarity members campaigning for the release of Lech Walesa, the joy of East Germans crossing the border via train from Hungary to Austria, the vast masses of humanity demonstrating peacefully night after night in Prague, Budapest, Leipzig and all over the Eastern Bloc, culminating, of course, in the fall of the Berlin Wall on that glorious night when, after a series of confused diktats laid out by a battered government in the vain hope of turning back the flow of history, the city’s citizens walked freely through their own city and danced on that monumental symbol of division and oppression in a stunning expression of freedom.

At that moment, all our destinies took a change for the better. Throughout the Cold War people lived under the shadow of possible nuclear holocaust and while these concerns had eased throughout the 1980s as Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated various arms treaties, the breach of the Wall signalled the end of this threat. But the greatest aspect of this revolution was that, in many countries, change arrived without the firing of a single shot, another ringing endorsement for the principles of non-violent protest pioneered by the followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It showed that when a critical mass of opposition to an oppressive regime is reached, it will inevitably fall without a need for bloodshed.

This gives hope to those who continue to yearn for freedom, for instance in Iran reformers can take heart that, while the Mullahs have managed to cling on to power with their machinations, their days are numbered and eventually freedom will come. It also sets a great example for those who are tempted to follow the dark path of terrorism to further their goals, showing them that there is another way to improve their lot.

I wanted to include one video to illustrate what happened, but there are so many amazing images that I have included four: the first is an ABC synopsis of the events of that amazing year; the second is a moving documentary by Berliner Carsten Cumbrowski, which also captures the confusion caused by the misinterpretations of the government’s orders; the last two videos from Spiegel TV will take you right down to street level for the moments before and after the world changed and shows the tension leading right up to the moments the guards gave in and the good-natured, yet absolute, resolve of the citizens that they would wait no longer. For those who are too young to remember these scenes please enjoy…this is what freedom means: