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By the numbers: Mobile phones on the road to unrest

Mobile phones have played their part in civil unrest and regime change. So is a proliferation of devices and an unsatisfied population now a sure-fire recipe for disaster?
Written by Phil Dobbie, Contributor

If you want to go hunting for it, you'll find pictures of the Arab Spring uprising across YouTube, uploaded by participants or onlookers on their mobile phones. Years ago, that wouldn't have been possible, because (a) there weren't too many phones, and (b) smartphones weren't that easy to use. You could also add (c) many countries had lousy data capabilities.

Now that's changed. Let's take Egypt as an example. According to data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), there were 18 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants of Egypt in 2005. Just 6 years later, it had risen to 101. All of a sudden, they had phones, they had Twitter — prepare for an uprising. Bahrain, with 127 phone subs per 100 people, was another country headed for a regime change, as was Tunisia (which reached 116 subs per 100 in 2011).

(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet)

So, can we expect more of the same in other parts of the world as mobile penetration increases? Perhaps we can. The lethal mix is a combination of poor living conditions and high mobile penetration. People are suddenly empowered to do something about their plight.

The UN's Human Development Index pulls together a variety of factors — economic, social, political, and cultural — to determine living standards. Popular trouble spots like Afghanistan, the Congo, and Zimbabwe all appear toward the bottom of the scale, and they've all been seeing massive increases in mobile phone penetration. The Congo, for example, has gone from 16 phones per 100 people in 2005 to 94 in 2011, and Cote d'Ivoire has gone from 13 phones to 84 phones in the same time period.

(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet )

The second chart shows countries that fall in the UN's Median Human Development list; things aren't quite so bad there, but life is still pretty tough. For many of these countries, mobile phone penetration is much higher, but the level of unrest is generally lower. The exceptions are autocracies, where the phone and internet have alerted a generation to the potential for greater democracy. Egypt, for example, had just 18 mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2005 — and it's risen to more than 100 since then. The numbers spoke for themselves — former ruler Hosni Mubarak had to go.

It's clear that mobile devices and social networking are good for people power. The question is: how many other governments are on the verge of seeing the strength of that power? How many of those at the bottom of the UN Human Development Scale will find that an influx of phones make resistance to an uprising futile? How much worse could the situation in Afghanistan be if they had double the mobile phone penetration — something that is highly likely over the next few years?

Perhaps that's the easy answer for western governments: pull back troops, and send phones.

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