Robert Pelletreau, a former American Ambassador in three of the countries very much in the news, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia, has highlighted how difficult it is to predict where protests will strike:
Tunisia had not seemed particularly shaky. It was a country that seemed to be doing many things right: universal education for men and women, low military spending, and positive economic growth. A large middle class was developing, and the country had become a popular tourist destination for Europeans. The government was authoritarian but also determinedly secular and pro-Western.
The role of social media has, with some justification, been given much attention, in upending events in such an unexpected fashion, but two other factors have been crucial. One, as Pelletreau went on to note, has been the state of the economy in these countries. Recession and pressures from commodity prices have caused huge problems across the world; the revolts in the Middle East are a small silver lining.
Second, as Charlie Beckett has blogged, is the role of Al Jazeera. Much of the coverage has come via social media and the spread of cheap and widely available cameras to record events. But Al Jazeera has then provided the mass audience outlet, with its coverage of protests encouraging more people to protest in turn as they have seen authority weakening.
As with technology’s impact in many other areas, the interplay of what technology makes possible and the size of audiences that more traditional media still often reach has had a far greater impact than either could on its own.