The Information Revolution Gets Political

NEW DELHI – The second anniversary of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt was marked by riots in Tahrir Square that made many observers fear that their optimistic projections in 2011 had been dashed. Part of the problem is that expectations had been distorted by a metaphor that described events in short-run terms. If, instead of “Arab Spring,” we had spoken of “Arab revolutions,” we might have had more realistic expectations. Revolutions unfold over decades, not seasons or years.

Consider the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Who would have predicted that within a decade, an obscure Corsican soldier would lead French armies to the banks of the Nile, or that the Napoleonic Wars would disrupt Europe until 1815?

If we think of the Arab revolutions, there are many surprises yet to come. So far, most Arab monarchies have had enough legitimacy, money, and force to survive the waves of popular revolt that have brought down secular republican autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, but we are only two years into the revolutionary process.

Beneath the Arab political revolutions lies a deeper and longer process of radical change that is sometimes called the information revolution. We cannot yet fully grasp its implications, but it is fundamentally transforming the nature of power in the twenty-first century, in which all states exist in an environment that even the most powerful authorities cannot control as they did in the past.