When confronted with startling political events, we naturally grasp at ways to make sense of them. Historical analogies promise to demystify a disorienting present through insights from the past. As political change roiled the Arab world early this year, many western observers and policy actors quickly drew analogies to Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. The hasty departure of longtime dictators, the enthusiastic crowds demonstrating in public squares, the political flames leaping from one country to the next, and the suddenness and inspiration of it all were indeed reminiscent of 1989. The analogy rekindled fond memories, casting a highly favourable light on events that soon displayed foreboding elements alongside their positive features. But those seeking to assist transitions in Arab countries should approach analogies with caution.
The 1989 analogy has served as a basis bothfor understanding and for action. Given the West’s important role in supporting the post-1989 transitions in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), many western policymakers assumed they could apply this experience to the current wave of political change in the Arab region. Aid practitioners assembled lists of lessons from prior support to post-communist transitions and hurried to apply them in the Arab world. Conferences and consultations in Tunis, Cairo and other Arab capitals on insights from the CEE transitions multiplied.