Despite the intensity of the general election campaign this blog has been watching the extraordinary events unfolding each day in Egypt. It has been a remarkable journey which culminated in the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak.
Who would have thought it? A few weeks ago there seemed little evidence of dissent within Arab states about the absence of democracy. And then in January, in Tunisia, one person, an angry, unemployed young man Mohammed Bouazizi, burned himself to death. He was protesting at the dire economic conditions in his country and the dictatorship of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Weeks of protests and many more deaths led to the toppling of the regime after 23 years in power. Ben Ali fled the country.
The media reporting of this, including the televising of images all across the Arab world of thousands of people on the streets, and of riot police and secret police beating and killing protestors, galvanised opinion in Egypt.
In addition an internet campaign in Egypt demanding change encouraged people to make a stand against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of cities protesting against poverty and corruption and unemployment. There were fierce clashes with the police but less so with the army when it moved in.
Tahrir Square in Cairo became the focal point of the campaign for change and for days it was packed with men, women and children demanding that Mubarak go. For 18 days he hung on. Even when it was clear that the army wasn’t prepared to confront the protestors, and with most countries around the world calling for his resignation, the Egyptian dictator refused to budge.
But last Friday the pressure became too great and Mubarak finally went. And the crowds went wild with excitement and jubilation. People power had triumphed. And not for the first time.
The scenes in Cairo reminded this blog of the similar scenes of elation and euphoria in Berlin in November 1989 when thousands of people, under the guns of border guards, began to dismantle the Berlin Wall. Using hammers and crow bars and their bare hands they tore down the hated Wall that had divided their city from 1961 and had symbolised the division of their country since the end of the Second World War in 1945.
In this blogs memory the first real example of people power was the black civil rights movement in the USA. Like many of my generation this blog watched in the 1950s and 60s as mainly black and some white citizens confronted the racism and bigotry of the southern states of the USA. They challenged the unwillingness of the federal government in Washington to legislate to end discrimination.
It was an uphill struggle that saw many brave activists die and go to prison. But it succeeded in bringing about fundamental change in that society.
In our own place the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland tried in the 1960s to copy the example set in the USA. The Civil Rights Movement successfully focused attention on discrimination and injustice but the unionist regime with British Government support, stubbornly resisted bringing in the necessary changes, the Irish Government stood idly by and the situation deteriorated into conflict.
Mass protests and people power are not new to Ireland. Daniel O Connell famously mobilised Catholics to secure Catholic Emancipation in the early part of the 19th century. However, O Connell’s tactic of holding monster rallies, sometimes attracting hundreds of thousands of people, failed to win an end to the Act of Union.
Several decades later another form of people power was very effective during the Land War in achieving significant reform in land distribution in Ireland. Michael Davitt and others very successfully combined the tactic of boycott and protest to force changes to land ownership.
In more recent times people power has wrought huge changes across the world. In 1986 the ‘Yellow Revolution’ brought an end to the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Within a few years one eastern bloc country after another, beginning with Poland in 1989, threw out their communist one party systems and embraced democracy. In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved into Russia and 14 other nations.
Mostly these transformations were peaceful, although the threat of potential violence was never far away. Some as in Romania and Yugoslavia were brutal. Others failed, most notably in Burma and China were pro-democracy movements were crushed.
People power, often led by children in places like Soweto, confronted the apartheid regime in South Africa. The violence of the apartheid state and the armed struggle of Umkhonto we Sizwe, allied to people power on the streets brought the White apartheid government to the negotiating table and in 1994 Mandela became the President of a free South Africa.
So, people power has had its successes and its failures. And its success has often hinged on the explicit or implicit threat of greater violence.
But two things are certain. There is nothing more legitimate than the power of the people. And no political problem is intractable. No injustice is irreversible. Nothing is impossible. Every difficulty, however extreme, can be overcome if people are determined to make a stand for change.