Revolutions past and present

Revolutions past and present

15 Feb 2011

anceschi_thumbLuca Anceschi

E-mail: l.anceschi@latrobe.edu.au

This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 15 February2011.

In the six eventful weeks that followed the beginning of 2011, the wave of popular unrest sweeping across North Africa claimed the ‘heads’ of two long-standing dictators: Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia, in charge since 1987) and, most famously, Hosni Mubarak, who has led Egypt since 1981. The example set by young Egyptians and Tunisians – as well as the success encountered by the resistance strategies they adopted – inspired political activists in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen to express more vocally their discontent with the local regimes. The Middle East is in ferment, and a number of regional leaders have now to find quick, suitable, and effective responses to growing internal demand for democratisation. These same leaders, only a few weeks ago, were ruling with virtually no opposition, limiting their commitment to political reform to mere lip service, often paid during the official visits of Western leaders.

The celebrations that followed the collapse of the regimes in Cairo and Tunis are evocative of the triumphs of the pro-democracy movements that redesigned the map of Eastern Europe in the equally eventful 1989. In spite of the widespread use of Google and Twitter – so instrumental in coordinating Egyptian and Tunisian protesters but obviously not available to people living beyond the Iron Curtain in 1989 – there are a great number of analogies between the two ‘revolutionary’ movements.

First, their nature appears to be truly popular. Looking at footages from Tahrir Square and the boulevards of central Tunis, the mind goes back to Potsdamer Platz or Wenceslas Square, where large multitudes of (East) Germans and (then) Czechoslovakians expressed their dissatisfaction with the ways in which they were ruled. Interpreting the sentiments of the larger population, the vigorous pro-democracy Arab movements – like their Eastern European counterparts did in 1989 – decided to openly challenge their regimes, which, in another striking similarity with 1989, looked increasingly weary and incapable to enforce their repressive measures with the vehemence of their heyday.

Second, Ben Ali and Mubarak, in the face of growing popular unrest, have been abandoned by their Western patrons, sharing in this sense the fate of the leaderships of the Communist Parties of the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama – following the example of what Mikhail Gorbachev did in 1989 – had to withdraw their support for the ailing Tunisian and Egyptian leaderships, as the political costs of standing by such unpresentable regimes had suddenly become unbearable. Recent phone calls between Cairo and Washington must have been strikingly similar – in tone and content – with those connecting the Kremlin and the Eastern European capitals in late 1989.

The list of similarities could go on, but, to fully grasp what it is currently happening in the Middle East, it is equally important to focus on the discrepancies between 2011 and 1989. Two such differences, to my mind, appear particularly relevant.


The opposition culture of Communist Eastern Europe produced a generation of leaders capable to withstand the regime’s repression and lead in effective ways the transitions originated by the collapse of the political order. Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel are the two most eminent examples of Eastern Europe political activists and intellectuals that became prominent figures in the post-Communist era. There was no doubt about who was going to lead post-Communist Poland or Czechoslovakia: in no time, after the end of Communist monopoly, Walesa and Havel became institutional figures easily recognised within and beyond their states.


The Arab movements of 2011 lack such intellectual and political leadership. The segmented nature of the Tunisian and Egyptian opposition has so far prevented the emergence of individual leaders capable of command support across different sections of the population. Egypt’s Mohamed El-Baradei seems to enjoy some support amongst the Egyptian opposition, but his relevance in the political landscape of the late Mubarak era has been perhaps exaggerated by Western media. The fragmented nature of leadership will certainly have a decisive impact on the Tunisian and Egyptian transitions: as the Egyptian Army – rather than the forces that have been active in Tahrir Square – is managing post-Mubarak Egypt, the situation in Tunisia remains fluid and, almost one month after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, the future of the Tunisian state appears rather uncertain.


To acquire a similar place in history of the events of 1989, the wave of unrest that has so far swept across North Africa will have to transcend regional borders and move towards other parts of the Middle East, and the Gulf more in particular. One of the most salient outcomes of the 1989 revolutions was the introduction of a new form of economic relations in post-Communist Eastern Europe. It is not by reforming the economies of North Africa that the Middle East’s production structure can be profoundly changed. So far as their economic activity, Egypt and Tunisia remain relatively marginal actors in the regional landscape, due to their declining performances and the scarcity of their natural resources. It is only by bringing political change in and revolutionising the economic structure of the Gulf states – where the abundance of natural resources goes hand in hand with authoritarian politics and growing economic inequality – that the year 2011 can become the Middle East’s 1989.
 

Luca Anceschi is Lecturer in International Relations at La Trobe University

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