2011 can be called a revolutionary year already; characterized by the political awaking of North Africa and violent suppression of the masses who crave democracy. Revolutions which disposed the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have shaken the Arab world and inspired protests across the Middle East and North Africa threatening the grip of long established leaders. Sounds like it is 1989 all over again, doesn’t it? Well, it is not.
In her recent Volkskrant article on the revolution in Egypt, journalist Nausicaa Marbe drew a parallel between the current situation in the Middle East and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. “The facts and emotions of the Egyptian revolution change at a staggering speed. That is how it was in 1989 in Eastern Europe and this is how it is now in the Arab world. No live reporting or tweets from the seething crowd can begin to describe how the Egyptians feel right now. And I speak from experience; in 1989 I was among the crowd in Revolution Square in the Romanian city of Timisoara.”
Marbe concludes that there are many similarities between 1989 and 2011. She’s not alone on that, in the international media, many have drawn the same parallel, especially since the exit of Egyptian president Mubarak on the 11th of February. The Pittsburg Tribune stated that ‘in the annals of modern history, the Egyptian revolution now shares standing with the fall of the Berlin Wall’ and over at the European Voice in Brussels reporters have been ‘pondering the lessons of 1989 for the protesters in Egypt.’
Many academics share this view; Professor Lucan Way, specialist on regime development in the post-Cold War era, thinks that the fall of communism in Eastern Europe provides important signs of what is likely to emerge from the protests in the Middle East. In his article ‘What Eastern Europe teaches us about Egypt: Short term Optimism and Medium Term Pessimism,’ he argues that the Middle East in 2011 is an even better example of snowballing (i.e. the process which happened in Eastern Europe where one success of democracy in one country causes other countries to democratize), than Eastern Europe was in 1989’.
The comparison seems an obvious one. Nevertheless, when taking a closer look, we find that significant differences suggest that we should not be too quick to compare today’s events in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries to the fall of the communist bloc. Mark Twain’s words “the past does not repeat itself but it rhymes,” definitely apply in this context. What we see here is not a repeat of history but a case of ‘rhyming revolutions’.
Tunisia’s Day of Wrath
It all started in December 2010. The 26 year old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi who grew up in Sidi Bouzid, a rural town burdened by corruption and suffering from an unemployment rate estimated at 30%. Bouazizi couldn’t find a regular job and was reduced to selling fruit and vegetables on the street in Sidi Bouzid. It was the only way he could support his mother and siblings to make some money to support his mother and siblings. On the 17th of December police confiscated his wares because he didn’t have the funds to bribe police officials to allow his street vending to continue. Bouazizi went to the local governor to complain about the way he was beaten up and humiliated by the police officer in charge. The governor refused to see him. Subsequently Bouazizi doused himself in paint thinner in front of the governor’s office and set himself alight. He died 18 days later. Bouazizi’s protest sparked riots in Sidi Bouzid over unemployment and corruption. Protests became widespread and moved to the capital Tunis. The anger and pressure became so intense that President Ben Ali fled Tunisia on the 14th of January 2011, ending his 23 year dictatorship.
With the sudden breakdown of authority in Tunisia last month, followed by a revolution in Egypt this month and uprisings in Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Lebanon, the snowball effect has well and truly started in the Arab world. These recent developments demonstrate how the collapse of authoritarianism in one country can have a huge impact on the stability of nearby regimes. For those who were around in the late eighties, this all seems familiar. In 1989, Poland was the first Eastern-Bloc country to get rid of its Soviet- dominated government. The Polish Solidarity labour movement led by Lech Wałesa achieved major political reforms, and free elections were held in 1989. The aforementioned snowball effect followed and after Poland, revolutions followed in Hungary, East-Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The last-named was the only Eastern-Bloc country to overthrow its communist regime violently. Albania and Yugoslavia abandoned communism between 1990 and 1992, whilst the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.
Will the snowball effect also continue throughout the Middle-East? No, says the Dutch political scientist and Middle-East expert Paul Aarts. “The revolution in Egypt and Tunisia will not spread to the Gulf states. Because of higher subsidies and a milder form of repression it is unlikely that these states’ regimes will fall.” Aarts explains that research has shown that repression in one-party systems (like in Yemen and Syria) is greater than in monarchies like Jordan and Saudi-Arabia. These monarchies have the financial means to keep people quiet. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any protest in these countries – in Jordan demonstrations and self- immolations have taken place and people are protesting in Bahrain as we speak – but these protests will not accumulate into revolutions according to Aarts. “In the Gulf States governments seem to be able to anticipate unrest, more so than in Egypt and Tunisia. For example, in Jordan the government will respond by lowering prices of basic products and other measures will be taken to avoid revolutions.”
The fact that it is unlikely that the snowball effect will continue throughout the Middle-East brings the first main difference between 1989 and 2011 to the surface; the Middle-East does not exist in a hierarchical structure similar to the Eastern-Bloc, nor is there a central figure like Gorbachev with wide-ranging authority in the entire region. He was not just the leader of the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union, but also of the Warsaw Pact military bloc in Eastern-Europe. Socialist states like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary were both politically and militarily submissive to Moscow. When Gorbachev came to power in 1988 he initiated policies of glasnost and perestroika, meaning openness, non-violence and reform. He urged his Eastern European counterparts to follow suit, whilst allowing these nations to determine their own internal affairs. The fact that Moscow would not use any force to suppress protests in neigbouring countries – like it had done in 1956 and 1968 in Hungary and Czechoslovakia – allowed the rise of popular upheavals in these countries.
Journalist Dirk Wanrooij, who was in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution, explains that unlike Eastern-Europe the Arab world is not a homogenous region with one political ideology. “Some countries are one party systems (military or clerical dictatorships), others are monarchies, some are economically stable, others struggle with widespread poverty and unemployment. In wealthier monarchies the people’s protests have a political nature whilst in Egypt and Tunisia the main incentive for people to demonstrate is these countries’ dire economical situation.” Wanrooij notes that an important difference between countries in this region is that some of these nations have strong ties with foreign powers and others don’t. ”In Bahrain for example, political leaders are backed financially by the US, which makes it more difficult for the protesters to achieve the same as the Tunisian people.”
In spite of all these differences, countries in the Middle East have one main thing in common; whereas revolutions in Eastern Europe were almost instigated by the Soviet Communist party, Arab leaders refuse to give up without a fight. According to Wanrooij the widespread suppression of protests has a unifying effect. “It is striking that, in spite of regional differences, people in the Arab world feel united in their struggle; there is a real sense of solidarity, which to my knowledge was less visible in Eastern Europe.”
Democratize without foreign help
The Eastern European History expert, Dr.Raymond Detrez, who works at the University of Ghent, notes that the European Union served as a clear model for what the future could hold for Eastern Europe after they had ridden themselves from their nondemocratic leaders. “The democratization, liberalization and privatization of Eastern-Europe took place under direction of the European Union.” Detrez argues that this is a significant difference between the situation of 1989 and 2011. “I don’t think that the European Union feels called upon to do the same in North-Africa or the Middle-East. The EU can’t offer any perspective in this context. Which leaves the Arab countries without a model; countries like Egypt will have to democratize on their own.” Detrez explains that the introduction of a democratic system in Eastern-Europe wasn’t complicated, although he does admit that initially these democracies didn’t function properly. The economical transition, on the other hand, was quite problematic. ”The privatization of these countries’ economies was difficult and the social consequences of this transition were severe.” In Eastern-Europe average standards of living registered a catastrophic fall in the early 1990s and only began to rise again towards the end of that decade. Today there are still certain areas where populations are poorer than they were in 1989.
When the smoke clears up
For North-African countries, according to Detrez, the implementation of a democratic system will be the biggest challenge, but on the bright side; they will not encounter the same problems on an economic level as Eastern-Europe, because they have a free market economy rather than a planned economy. Nevertheless these countries need to reform their current systems. Their economies need to benefit every- one and not just a small elite, royal family or foreign investor. The implementation of a fair economical system will take a considerable amount of time. In the meantime demands for higher wages and better conditions will continue. From his experiences in Egypt Wanrooij predicts a certain level of disintegration. “In Egypt people from different economical, religious and political backgrounds were united in a short term goal: the exit of Mubarak. This goal was achieved and now we see people who were previously united disintegrate into small groups with different demands for the future. People return back to their own group so to speak. The protest has moved from Tahrir square into the factories where the working class continue their fight for higher wages. This is where the confrontation between different groups is now taking place. The contradictions still have to take shape, a process which could result in an eruption of violence.” History sheds light on where the future might be going, nevertheless we should be cautious comparing a current situation to past events when there are more differences than similarities. Studying Eastern European revolutions and their aftermath does not provide us with any answers about the near future of countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Actually comparing 1989 to 2011 undermines the uniqueness of the revolutionary phenomenon in North Africa and the Middle East and is as such counterproductive. Once we recognize the truly remarkable and exceptional nature of the recent revolutions we can start to speculate about the future of these countries.