When Tunisia's dictator, Zine al Abidine ben Ali, abruptly bowed to demonstrations against his corrupt regime and fled to Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power, a predictable wave of euphoria broke out — not only in Tunis, where citizens are still wrangling over the shape of their new government, but also in the West. Europeans and Americans were quick to label it a "Twitter revolution," a democratic explosion fueled by Internet links that could spread like digital wildfire across the repressive wasteland of the Arab world.
Except it wasn't.
Now that the dust has settled, it's clearer that Tunisia's upheaval, like all revolutions, arose from local circumstances that don't foretell what will happen anywhere else. Ben Ali's government was a family-run kleptocracy; the economy was stagnant; and most important, he had failed at a dictator's first job: securing the loyalty of the armed forces. Next door, Algeria has corruption, unemployment and demonstrations too, but its armed forces are the core of its government and unlikely to switch sides. An old-fashioned lesson for revolutionaries: It's nice to have Twitter, but it's even nicer to have the army on your side.
If the Tunisian uprising does have ripple effects in other Arab countries, they won't be either immediate or predictable. One result, for example, may be more repression in other countries, including crackdowns on access to Twitter and other Internet tools.
"Opposition groups in places like Algeria, Egypt and Jordan are seeking to learn lessons from the Tunisian uprising," said Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, but "the regimes in the region are also drawing lessons."
So what about all those new communications tools? Does the access ordinary citizens now have to global information and social media empower grass-roots movements in a way that's never been seen?
Yes, but that alone can't make a revolution.
"There's no such thing as a Twitter revolution," says Jared Cohen of Google Ideas, Google's new think tank — and that's coming from someone who once served as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's principal advisor on what the State Department calls its "Internet Freedom Agenda." In 2009, Cohen telephoned the managers of Twitter and persuaded them to delay a maintenance break so Iranian protesters — who filled the streets of Tehran at the time — wouldn't lose their access.
Cohen does think technology has a major impact on incipient revolutionary movements: "It's an accelerant," he said. Social media make it easier for grass-roots dissidents to find each other, identify potential leaders, share information and connect with the outside world. But in the end, he noted, "a successful revolution still requires people to go into the streets and risk their lives."
Some are even more skeptical. Evgeny Morozov, a Belarus-born scholar at the New America Foundation, has just published a book, "The Net Delusion," that argues that the idea of promoting democracy through Internet technology may be a pipedream.
For one thing, he argues, authoritarian regimes use the Internet too. They monitor e-mail and other communications to identify their enemies and send "infiltrators" into online communities to act as informers and provocateurs.
"Technology — not just the Internet but also mobile phones — makes it easier to trace protesters and dissidents," Morozov wrote on his blog last week.
If an opposition movement falls short and "the dictator doesn't fall in the end, the benefits of social mobilization afforded by the Internet are probably outweighed by its costs, i.e., the ease of tracking down dissidents."
In Russia, the Kremlin has hired a former Internet pornography czar to run its own online programs. In China, the Communist Party has deployed thousands of hired bloggers to flood the Internet with pro-regime sentiments. In Egypt, officials appear to be emulating the Chinese model, which allows massive Internet use, only under constant government surveillance.
As for U.S. efforts to promote Internet freedom, Morozov says, that too can cause harm. In one case, he notes, the State Department sponsored a software fix called "Haystack" that was intended to allow Iranians secure access to the Internet. But the department had to stop the program after discovering security weaknesses that could allow the Iranian government to identify users after all.
On balance, he argues, the whole U.S. program may have backfired by inciting more repression.
"Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of Internet freedom: Don't talk about promoting Internet freedom," he wrote.
Still, the Obama administration is already under fire for putting too little muscle behind human rights. Internet freedom is a nice arm's-length form of liberty that the United States can sponsor without colliding directly with regimes it doesn't want to offend, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Omitting it from the U.S. agenda would be illogical.
In the end, though, the most important steps in promoting democracy and securing human rights will continue to be low tech. In Tunisia, it was the sacrifice of a street merchant who set himself on fire, the courage of thousands of demonstrators and the decisions of unknown army officers that made a revolution happen, not Facebook or Twitter.
The most important thing the United States can do for Arab democrats isn't helping them get on the Internet; it's helping Tunisia turn successfully from dictatorship to democracy. And that will take the skillful use of some old-fashioned tools: diplomacy and foreign aid.