>An Arab 1989? Look to Bucharest not Berlin


I know  very little about North Africa and the Middle, but like many people interested in comparative politics and political change I have been watching the turbulent and unexpected development in Tunisia and Egypt  – and their smaller ripples elsewhere in the Arab world. Even Albania seems to have been affected by the demonstration effect. Moreover, area specialists, as with East Europeanists in 1989, seem to have been caught slightly on the hop, but the speed and decisiveness of events.
Tunisian Interior Ministry employees protest
Much comment, in the absence of any real knowledge,  seems to be a kind of echo chamber for the preoccupations of whoever’s doing the commenting. The centre-left Twittersphere, for example, is awash with expressions of #solidarity and breathless updates about tanks in Suez from people who see popular mobilization against a corrupt semi-authoritarian regime in Cairo as a loose parallel for the kind of mass civic protest movement against austerity measures and spending cuts they would like (but have so far failed) to create in the UK.   showdown with the Coalition does indeed materialize in 2011. But, of course, Hosni Mubarak’s regime and its imminent demise about hiking tuition fees, shutting down libraries and privatizing woodland. And then there is the small matter of rigged elections, secret police  torture, rampant corruption etc.

Still, I am basically no better. My attention homes in speculation of an ‘Arab 1989’, a ‘1989 moment’ or comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The basic parallel is that of sudden, unanticipated regime collapse spreading across a region through domino (aka ‘demonstration’ ) fueled by people power. The analogy is, however, a rather lazy – even dangerous – one. The same ‘1989’ paradigm was in the mind of the US Neocon policymakers as planned the invasion of Iraq (and neglected to plan the post-invasion). 
However, as far as I can judge, the East European parallel tends to underline differences in the developments we are seeing now: although the semi-reconstructed Tunisian government coming under pressure from the streets had echoes of  the early stages Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, most transitions in 1989 were negotiated elite deals with little or no mass popular protests driving events. Well-organized and credible oppositions either existed or quickly emerged and there was a wide social and political consensus about the future direction. In Egypt opposition parties seem weak while civil society groups  – much better organized than in communist Eastern Europe – seems reluctant to unite and step into the vacuum and there seem to be few obvious big policy ideas lurking below the notion of ‘reform’. Moreover, the much younger demographics of the Arab societies seemingly now entering political transition seems to give issues like youth unemployment a bigger profile than

If they resemble 1989 at all, events in Egypt and Tunisa seem most reminicent of Romania in 1988-9 – a parallel spotted by a piece in the Baltimore Sun –  usually considered an exception and outlier in Eastern European ‘revolutions of ’89’: a personalized dictatorship with dynastic overtones; spontaneous, chaotic and somewhat violent popular protest; a key role for the police and army and their willingness (or unwillingness) to keep order; and a new regime recruited mainly from second rank figures fromt he old bureaucratic power stucture.  Except that – although European Neighbourhood Policy will now no doubt turns its  eyes South in a big way – there is no equivalent to the magnetic prospect of EU membership that dragged Romania into being a minimal but real liberal democracy. Similar points are made in an interesting piece by Florian Bieber.

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