An ‘Arab 1989’ in 1989?

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Photo: Wally Gombetz CC BY-SA 2.0

 When the Arab Spring broke out two years ago, and there were plenty of commentaries about the Arab 1989. And, perhaps against their better judgement, many specialists on Eastern Europe – including me – piled in to muse about the lessons post communist transitions might hold for unfolding democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa.

A few of these, such as the lecture Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Foundation gave at UCL well thought through and insightful. But in hindsight  many of these pieces did not go further than juxtaposition  seasoned with a dose of speculation.

Having witnessed the academic spats of the 1990s when East European area studies got bogged down in polemics with comparative political scientists, in part driven by anguish and reproach over the failure of area specialists to anticipate the collapse of Communism, perhaps we should have known better.

The military intervention in Egypt and the brutal and tenacious resistance of the Assad regime in Syria – and the apparent internationalization of the Syrian civil war – have caught many commentators flat-footed. There doesn’t seem to be so much writing about the Arab 1989 (or even 1848) now.

  One of the biggest problems of such current affairs driven, instant cross-regional analysis is that we hardly know the beginning of the story, still less its end. To put it in the jargon of political science, we do not have a consolidated outcome.

 But perhaps, in any case, the question is the wrong way round. Rather than East Europeanists pondering what post-communist transition tell us what the unfinished story of the Arab Spring, we should asking what events in the Middle East tell us about post-communist region we actually (supposedly) know something about. Maybe we should view events in Eastern Europe in a new light.

 The tenacity of regime resistance and ongoing instability driven by poverty and conflicts  between political religion and the more secular groups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) certainly makes what Ralf Dahrendorf anticipated would be Central and Eastern Europe’s ‘vale of tears’ look relatively quick, speedy and benign. The rapid reassertion of entrenched regime forces in the failed or failed transition in the former Soviet Union also begins to look more the norm than it once did.

 Someone I was in conversation with on Facebook posed this question in a slightly different way, arguing that in hindsight when view through the lens of the Arab Spring the role of contingency in Eastern Europe’s success story emerges more clearly. Perhaps 1989 really was just a ‘year of miracles’.

 What, asked my Facebook friend, would have been the outcome if the Arab Spring had started in 1989-90, and the East European transformation in 2010-11 rather than vice versa?  Both, he suggested, would have failed.  It’s bold counterfactual, not least because it posits the survival of communism (specifically Soviet communism) for another two decades after its actual demise and the outbreak of revolts in the Arab world in Cold War conditions.  Surely the US and USSR would have gone to much greater lengths to bolster incumbent regimes in 1970s or 80s – and in context where the USSR was much more powerful international player than Putin’s Russia will ever be. Was the fall of communism not a precondition for the ultimate  fall of authoritarians in MENA?

 As those social scientists and (rather fewer) historians who take counter-factual seriously – works by Avizier Tucker and Philip Tetlock come to mind – emphasize that to be a legitimate ‘thought experiment’ a counter-factual generally needs plausibility and not too much rewriting of antecedent structural conditions. Is a counter-factual ‘Arab 1989’ in 1989 (or thereabouts) against the background of a continuing Cold War plausible?  It would need a Middle East specialist to judge or explain why it didn’t or couldn’t have happened) although the Iranian Revolution  did break out in precisely such conditions.

  And on more familiar ground, I guess it is (just) possible to imagine the thwarting of Gorbachev in 1984-5 and a continuation of a Brezhevite USSR or perhaps some form of Andropovite authoritarian reformer in the Kremlin. Communism regimes in places like Cuba, North Korea have shown an ability to mutate and adapt. Perhaps the ‘Ottomanization’ scenario for Eastern Europe sketched in 1988 by Timothy Garton Ash might turned into an 1848-style series of failed revolts.

 But whether you run it as a counter-factual thought experiment or an exercise in retrospective lesson drawing the same type of conclusion: that CEE’s successful democratization of the last two decades has been more of a lucky accident than has been generally reckoned and that its structural roots may run less deeply than previously argued. .

It remains to be seen if and how this will have a bearing on democracy in the region over the next two decades.

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