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Bringing change to Egypt in 140 characters or less

Don’t call it a fad. Or the latest trend to make its way over from the U.S. Twitter is nothing new for Egyptians.

You might even say the popular micro-blogging service made its social networking debut in Egypt, when James Karl Buck, an American journalism student visiting from UC Berkeley, tweeted the now famous line from an Egyptian jail cell: “Arrested.”

Buck was detained while covering the aftermath of riots in the northern industrial city of Mahalla in April 2008.

Since then, Egypt’s journalists, bloggers and activists have used Twitter to spread news on everything from labor disputes to the notoriously slow crawl of rush-hour traffic in Cairo. Cheaper technology, greater internet access, and the lack of government censorship are just a few reasons for its growth in Egypt.

But last week, tweeps here were astonished to learn the true identity of the latest local to climb on the bandwagon: Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Using the (now officially verified) name @ElBaradei – the former Nobel laureate is using Twitter to rally Egyptians around constitutional change and reform, despite operating in a political landscape dominated by President Hosni Mubarak. Many Egyptians are hoping for ElBaradei to challenge Mubarak in the 2011 presidential race. But the election laws – tightly guarded by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party - will limit ElBaradei’s chances.

Online however, he was more hopeful.

“Keep the dream alive,” ElBaradei tweeted to his followers today. “Hope is on the rise.”

And in a world where celebrities tweet the most banal details of everyday life, ElBaradei is reserved. Indeed, true to his diplomatic past, ElBaradei seems to be listening on Twitter.

When local journalists asked him (through Twitter) why he was initially tweeting only in English, the former Nobel laureate started tweeting feeds in Arabic as well. When asked why he was silent over Egyptian police brutality and detentions during peaceful demonstrations last week, ElBaradei responded, calling the ruling regime’s heavy-handed response a “shame”.

“Detentions and beatings during peaceful demonstration [sic] is an insult to the dignity of every Egyptian,” tweeted ElBaradei.

ElBaradei is not the only Egyptian political figure on Twitter, but if the number of followers is any indication, he’s certainly the most popular. And his numbers are on the rise.

His only challenge?

There are two statistics ElBaradei must overcome before seeing real gains through Twitter: 16 percent and 89 percent.

With a population of nearly 80 million people, 16 percent is roughly the number of internet users in Egypt, according to the World Bank. And 89 percent? That was Mubarak’s margin of victory in the last presidential election in 2005.