Measuring the Revolutionary Wave

NEW YORK – A prediction three months ago that popular protests would soon topple a dictatorship in Tunisia, sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt, provoke civil war in Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, and rattle regimes from Morocco to Yemen would have drawn serious skepticism. We knew that the tinder was dry, but we could never know how or when, exactly, it would combust. Now that it has, how far can the flames spread?

Some commentators have taken to calling this moment the “Arab Spring,” an awakening that might permanently cripple autocracy in the Middle East. The contagion effect seems clear. Countries across the region have large numbers of young people and too few jobs. Food prices are rising. Corruption fuels anger.

In Egypt, young people, inspired by satellite television images and empowered by modern communications, lit and fed the fire. Given the easy availability of these technologies, their ability to catalyze protest might transcend borders once thought impregnable.

But, with their survival at stake, authoritarian regimes are good at spotting threats in the neighborhood and adapting to meet them. Though satellite television, mobile phones, and online social networking can force some authoritarians to become more responsive to popular demands, governments can also use these technologies to identify and isolate threats, monitor communications among activists, and transmit messages of their own. Or, when necessary, they can simply turn them off.