In Tunisia they began on a Friday in December and lasted a month before Prime Minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who declared himself president in 1987, was forced to flee the country. In Egypt they began on a Tuesday, and despite a government crackdown appeared unstoppable leading into Friday prayers Jan. 28. In Lebanon protesters took to the streets that same Tuesday, and in Yemen, a Thursday marked the beginning of massive street demonstrations.
Across the Middle East, "days of rage" featuring large-scale street protest movements are threatening the downfall of longstanding governments-and key U.S. allies. What they have in common is new: Fomented not by organized radical opposition, they are instead the work of disparate discontents, many under 30, who have learned how to mobilize fellow discontents they may not even know. That means movements united by cause-and thereby perhaps stronger-but lacking leadership-and thereby unstable.
"The reality is, there is no such thing as a Twitter revolution, this is just what revolutions look like now," said Jared Cohen, who worked for the State Department under the Bush and Obama administrations before becoming director of Google Ideas last year and an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Cohen spoke to journalists by conference call as Cairo street demonstrations already were unfolding: "Throughout history, whenever you have had a revolution, a smart movement uses smart tools."
Here's how Cohen says social technology like Twitter and Facebook are driving days of rage:
• Serve as accelerants. Volunteers inside and outside the country can post and disseminate information, not dependent on physical organization under a repressive regime.
• Turn individuals into citizen journalists. Twitpics and videos drive mainstream media to focus on countries they might otherwise consider off-radar-like Moldova in 2009 or Tunisia in December 2010.
• Create space for unlikely leaders. Revolutions are no longer about "the person who takes the bullet" or the local figure who organizes (think Lech Walesa's Solidarity in Poland). You don't even necessarily need a central leader. But if there isn't one, then the challenge comes when protests end and governing must begin.
• Provide a window for others in the region. Social technology tends to sustain coverage after the television cameras leave, and that can foster accountability and provide a real-time template for others to copy.
Those characteristics add up to a fast-moving challenge for the Obama administration. Will it risk siding with mob rule, or with known, if repressive, allies? Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has acted as a U.S. bulwark in the region against radical Islamic groups, yet it's clear from January protests that more than radicals want his ouster: Protesters, according to an eyewitness, included women with babies, young, old, Muslims, and Christians.
As protests endure, they tend to collect organized opponents-in Egypt, the radical Muslim Brotherhood vowed Jan. 27 to join, then Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, pledged his support as a moderate opposition figure.
Yet the Obama administration has lacked a forceful, or clear, response. On a tour of Arab countries Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned leaders against "sinking into the sand": "Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever." President Obama sided with the street in his State of the Union: "The U.S. stands with the people of Tunisia and all people striving for democracy."
Analysts like Cohen warn that it's imperative for the administration to read the opposition well. And ElBaradei issued a stronger warning: "I am pretty sure that any freely and fairly elected government in Egypt will be a moderate one, but America is really pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression."