CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS -- This column was supposed to explore my impressions of the Arab Spring after several months at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. I had searched my memory when news of the Boston Marathon explosions broke. And although no one knows at this writing who is responsible, thoughts turned inevitably to the terror felt after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and, for me, to reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and from Spain, Morocco and Britain as they were hit by bomb blasts.
The Boston bombings may have no connection to the Islamic world.
But writing this column did bring into focus burning questions about the long-term implications of the instability in the Middle East and North Africa. How will this affect security over all, and women's rights in particular?
The economies in post-Arab Spring countries like Tunisia and Egypt are in decline and political and social tensions are increasing. In some regions of Libya, various tribes have taken command and do not heed the leadership in Tripoli.
The affected countries have several traits in common: Post-revolt leaders are more religious, women are more bound by tradition and militants with links to Al Qaeda are more visible, most notably perhaps in the civil war raging in Syria.
Jessica Stern, a fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and a former member of the National Security Council, told me that the Arab Spring has been at most a mixed blessing for the people in the region. "Democracy is not the panacea that many Americans imagine it to be," she said, noting that a transition from autocratic rule toward a system that accommodates a desire for more freedom is especially delicate and dangerous.
"Civil strife and terrorism tend to go up and, unless protections are put in place for minorities and women, things often get worse for these groups," Ms. Stern said. "Women are particularly at risk in Syria, where rape has become a weapon of war and intimidation."
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape, or the threat of rape, is often cited as one of the most important reasons prompting families to flee Syria -- as more than one million people now have.
Fotini Christia, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently traveled to Syria to interview women, many of them among the millions said to be displaced by two years of war.
Ms. Christia said many of the women she interviewed had participated in peaceful demonstrations against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
They know that they will probably have to wage another battle for their own freedom and rights, she said, in what they anticipate will be a much more conservative political space when the war finally ends.
"They are not naïve or revolutionary romantics," Ms. Christia said. "They have seen women get sidelined in post-Arab Spring Egypt, Yemen and Libya."
Tawakkol Karman, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her co-leadership of the revolution in Yemen, is now staying out of the so-called national dialogue on the future of her country.
In Libya, women have seen the reinstitution of polygamy. In Egypt, women have lost more than 50 seats in Parliament, with just nine female deputies left.
Soha Bayoumi, a lecturer on the history of science at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, called the situation of women in Egypt "rather unsettling, with the rampant sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the erosion of women's rights and status in the Constitution." She referred to what she called "the removal of historical figures of Egyptian feminism from school curricula."
Mrs. Bayoumi, who has family members still in Egypt, said that she was struck by the sense of solidarity right after the revolution.
This changed, she said, with the mismanagement of the transition and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood to power.
"Their perceived incompetence, arrogance, authoritarianism and bullying, combined with the crushing economic situation, has definitely changed the mood," she said.
Her eyes welled up.
"The situation in Egypt is not sustainable," she said. "A moment of explosion is bound to happen. I think sooner rather than later."
One question now much discussed is whether democracy or universal suffrage is necessarily the right path for all societies in the Middle East and North Africa, where in some countries the attachment to tribal or religious leadership outweighs loyalty to political institutions, particularly new or weak ones.
"Actually, the question is: Does the West and especially the United States really want democracy in the Middle East, when free elections would lead to winners who hate the United States and Israel?" Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political critic, told me in his office at M.I.T.
In countries like Bahrain, which has officially instituted a dialogue between the government and protesters, it is unclear whether the political process can overcome the keenly felt divide between the Shiites and Sunni Muslims.
This week, as the Formula One racing circuit was due to return to Bahrain for a Grand Prix, protests that have marked most of the past two years in the country again increased in intensity.
A Bahraini woman who is studying for her doctorate in the United States, and who said she did not want to be identified, shuddered at the sight of the Boston explosions, but then noted: "Why is it when car bombs explode in Bahrain, like in the last days, people in the West call it a search for democracy, when it is the same as what has happened in Boston, an act of terrorism."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.