What links the Arab Spring rebellions with political agitation in China and at least another five dozen simmering or emerging crises?
If your answer is "the Internet," you have identified one of the key information technologies that spread the flames. However, the common human fire in these disparate struggles is intense disgust with embedded corruption.
Tyrants maintain control by isolating and intimidating their subjects. However, since the advent of the printing press and increasing public literacy, preserving tyrannical isolation has become a bit more difficult.
Over time, subjects become aware of social, cultural, economic and political alternatives to the despot's rule, despite the despot's propaganda. Just how deeply West German television influenced East German resistance to communism is debatable, but the Iron Curtain could not hide the overwhelming evidence of Western affluence and the West's ability to occasionally remove corrupt leaders.
Communist elite corruption amidst systemic economic failure certainly influenced resistance throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The special stores and vacation homes enjoyed by Communist Party favorites infuriated workers denied similar access. East European workers knew that they were industrialized serfs in handcuffed societies falling further and further behind Western European nations. In 1989, when the Russians concluded the Eastern European security forces could not -- or would not -- shoot everyone, the Berlin Wall cracked.
Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution (January 2011) had echoes of 1989. Tunisian security forces were reluctant to fire on demonstrators complaining about lack of jobs and an oligarchy of wealthy families and government officials who had rigged the system for their mutual benefit -- in other words, systemic corruption benefiting favored constituencies to the persistent detriment of everyone else.
Tunisia's comparatively well-educated (though underemployed) population, thanks to the Internet as well as travel, knew there were alternatives. They understood how the corrupt system stunted their own ability to create wealth.
Twenty-first century tyrants and their loyalists can still intimidate. Iran's Khomeinists, Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi have crack troops and vicious secret police, and make savvy use of proxy thugs, gangsters and terrorists. However, they no longer enjoy the advantage of deep, permanent silence. The Internet and cell phones put the power of the printing press, telegraph, radio, and television literally in the hands of individuals.
This is why Beijing's communists police the Internet so vigorously. Information alone does not end the tyranny and stop the intimidation, but since backpack video cameras began televising slaughter in real time, we have seen the dynamic. Slaughter exposed provokes outrage, which escalates internal resistance and increases external political pressures on the perpetrators.
Harsher crackdowns might assure short-term regime survival, but that might lead to calls for forceful international intervention. Liberalization, to include anti-corruption drives, might weaken the regime. Losing the benefits of the regime's corruption machine risks angering or alienating favored cronies, tribes, co-religionists or kinsmen.
Iran's clerics came to power claiming they would end the Shah's corruption. Absolute power, however, corrupts absolutely. The Khomeinist regime is now more despotic and more venally corrupt than the Shah's. Discontent in Iran focuses on the regime's corruption and economic failure.
These same complaints, with local variations, appear worldwide. Political and judicial bribery undermine Mexico's complex war on drug cartels, which is one reason Mexican President Felipe Calderon emphasizes systemic reform. Popular anger at corrupt Communist officials and police fuels dissent in China. Tribal cronyism and debilitating government corruption spurred Kenya's chaotic post-election conflict in January 2008.
Corruption, to a degree, afflicts every society, organization and soul. Corruption's public and political manifestations -- the Arab Spring rebellions have focused on graft, theft, bribery, embezzlement and nepotism -- are symptoms of avarice and ambition.
The Italian poet Francesco Petrarch identified avarice and ambition as two of the five great enemies of peace resident in the human condition (envy, anger and pride being the other three). Corruption is innate to the human condition. To paraphrase Walt Kelly's cartoon character, Pogo, the enemy is us. This is the point where open, democratic systems governed by the rule of law assert their moral and creative superiority -- what the East Europeans noticed.
In free societies, sometimes justice calls the most-powerful elites to account. Crooked leaders, executives and even celebrities, along with their connected lackeys, really do go to jail.