Thursday, August 18, 2011

At Last, The Arabian Wall Of Fear Falls

By Adil Awadh
Twenty years from now, December 2030, I know exactly where I will be: celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, with a dancing crowd, enjoying a display of giant falling dominoes. No, this won’t be in Germany. Unfortunately, I missed the event in November 2009, when visiting icon and Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa tipped the first domino in commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years earlier. My air ticket destination will read Tunis.
For centuries, Arabs have been gazing at the wall of fear that their oppressive regimes have managed to erect in every citizen’s mind. People knew the high price that they would pay if they dared to leap over that wall. But the free Tunisians had a better plan: If you can’t jump it, thump it. Within days, it crumbled. Then the Egyptians followed the lead. And their wall fell too. In Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, the people are still trying and dying. The path is long and grueling, but one thing is certain: The spark of democracy has been ignited.
But what’s next?
The cascading wave of change in the Arab world holds some resemblance to the 1989 revolutions in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania that led to European-style liberal democracies – with less emphasis on civil society and non-governmental organizations. However, three experts in this field caution against the analogy. They emphasized in email correspondences with me that the specificity of the 1989 European revolutions that led to the collapse of communism could not be forced on the Arab setting.
“The key difference for me is how strong some of the governments in the Middle East are proving to be, and conversely, how easy it was to bring communism to its knees,” wrote Patrice C. McMahon, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska.
Ironically, the communist ideology contributed to the fall of these regimes as it encouraged workers unions, which led to the formation of Solidarity in Poland with its 10 million members. In 1981, those members organized a four-hour-long strike that was reportedly the largest in European history. This prompted The New Republic to publish an editorial by Hendrik Hertzberg that sarcastically wrote, “If Karl Marx were alive today, he would not be surprised at what is happening in Poland.”
Both Poland and Hungary revolted in 1956 against Soviet oppression. All, including Czechoslovakia in 1968, were met with force. However, these countries had a “permissive environment for change,” argues McMahon, where many citizens had accumulated precious experience in human mobilization, politics, and administration – all put to use at the time of transition in 1989.
No such equivalent is available in the Arab world today, which makes the Arab public less equipped to deal with the logistical challenges of the revolutions (although the introduction of social media has ameliorated this shortcoming). In addition, many Arab countries don’t seem to have the kind of financial troubles that limited the ability of the communist regimes at that time and their protector, the former Soviet Union, to respond to the revolts.
Another key difference that makes the “Arab Spring” unlikely to go the way of Poland is the absence of the external factor. “I don’t think the precedent of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe travels very well to the Arab world,” wrote Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor at Stanford University. Those regimes were “artificial” not only because they were illegitimate, but also because “they had mostly been imposed and maintained by former Soviet military domination or intimidation,” Diamond added.
And once Mikhail Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union, announced in December 1988 that his country would not use force to defend communism in Eastern Europe, the meltdown ensued. An external factor that “so powerfully locks the Arab dictatorships in place” is lacking in the Middle East.
Not only has the birth of the “Arab Spring” been independent of any external influence, but it’s completely “homegrown,” according to Larbi Sadiki, an academic at Exeter University in the United Kingdom and the author of “Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy.” Sadiki points to another difference between the Arab and the European revolutions, saying that the former lacks an ideological dimension. In Tunisia and Egypt, the revolts started “as bread riots and then converted into bottom-up struggles for dignity and freedom,” he explains.
But if the “Arab Spring” doesn’t follow in the steps of Poland and East Germany, what direction will it take? Basically any one. “It will be complex, open-ended and arduous,” but it will eventually open up paths for democratization, says Sadiki. Diamond and McMahon concur, stressing that events will be much more protracted and violent than those in most of Eastern Europe.
So don’t expect the display of enormous falling dominoes in Tunisia or Egypt any time soon. That’s why the date on my air ticket to Tunis will be December 2030. I hope by then I will see the democratic example of Poland and Germany, not the regrouping of the old order as in the former Soviet states.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/08/2011
-Adil Awadh is a journalist and fellow with the Pearl Project at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international, an online newsletter

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