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.
This overarching analogy and the actions it has inspired are rooted in good intentions, but significant caution is nevertheless needed. Comparisons between CEE in 1989 and the Arab world in 2011 are easily as misleading as helpful. The two regions differ fundamentally in numerous major aspects, including the nature of the ancien régimes, opposition movements and existing societies, and the position of the international community.
Differences between the two regions …
Nature of the regimes
A majority of CEE pre-1989 regimes were party-based, organized around a clear (albeit faded) political ideology, and held in place by Soviet power and their own internal security services. Arab regimes are quite different. The countries where most political change has occurred this year were, prior to January 2011, personalistic dictatorships of only vague ideological character, anchored in military establishments that had played a dominant political role since decolonization.
These differences have led to diverging patterns of political change: when CEE regimes collapsed, the whole edifice basically fell together, leaving room for the full-scale construction of new political systems. In contrast, when leaders were driven from power in Tunisia and Egypt, the militaries in those countries stayed in place, signalling a shift of leadership without a clear change of regime. In countries like Yemen and Syria, the ruling elites have refused to give up power despite repeated waves of protests and have severely repressed protesters, engendering a level of violence quite unlike most of the CEE experience.
Nature of the opposition
Some of the opposition movements in CEE countries, such as Solidarity in Poland and the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, operated for some time before the regimes fell and enjoyed strong leadership and a certain amount of organizational coherence. In Tunisia and Egypt, the forces that drove out their presidents were spontaneous combinations of many different existing groups plus thousands of individuals engaging in political activism for the first time. The less coherent nature of the Arab opposition movements in organizational and ideological terms has made it hard for them to translate their initial political success into a sustained, focused vision for change.
Nature of the societies
Although CEE countries experienced long-term economic stagnation before 1989, they were nevertheless marked by high levels of education, relatively low levels of inequality, and few people in serious poverty. These societies were also relatively homogeneous in religious and ethnic terms (with some exceptions, such as the Czech-Slovak split in Czechoslovakia and the Hungarian-Romanian divide in Transylvania). Arab societies are different. Economically they are either relatively poor with severe educational deficiencies (Egypt’s illiteracy rate is around 34 per cent), high levels of inequality and large numbers of poor people, or they are oil-rich states with high income levels combined with the citizen dependency syndrome characteristic of rentier states. Many of these countries have deep social divides, especially among different ethnic and religious groups and between secular and religious establishments. The profound differences in the basic socioeconomic features of the Arab world today and CEE in 1989 are certain to contribute to divergent patterns of political development.
Position of external actors and geopolitical context
As CEE countries entered the political transitions of 1989, they had a clear sense of their end goal: to rejoin Europe. They wanted to become members of the European Union as democratic states with well-functioning market economies wrapped in a reasonable degree of social protection. The US and Western Europe saw these political and economic transitions as in their own clear interest and moved quickly to provide considerable amounts of diplomatic, economic and political support to help ensure their success. This backing was generally met with open arms: western assistance was seen as crucial to their future.
In contrast, the Middle East and North Africa have no successful Arab democratic model to aspire to and no clear sense of regional trajectory. The US and Europe are deeply uncertain about whether democratic transitions in the Arab world will serve the West’s main interests in the region (such as close cooperation on counterterrorism and reliable access to oil) and have not mobilized large-scale resources to support democratic transitions. What support the West has offered has been met with significant hesitancy and suspicion, given Arabs’ deep doubts about the West’s intentions in the region.
In short, along all four of these fundamental dimensions the differences between CEE in 1989 and the Arab world today are far more striking than the similarities. If one were to design a thought experiment in contrasting sociopolitical contexts, it would be hard to pick cases more different.
… and similarities
Some similarities do of course exist. While scenes of violent turmoil in Libya, Yemen and Syria do not much resemble images from Prague, Warsaw and Berlin in 1989, watching Egypt and Tunisia grapple with the complexities of moving from authoritarian collapse to elections brings to mind some elements of CEE political life after the fall of the Wall. Just to give a few examples: idealistic civil society actors that surged into the political fray at the crucial moment of authoritarian collapse but are now struggling to make an effective transition to the everyday rigours of competitive political life; the mushrooming of political parties, with new political operators appearing almost out of nowhere representing no coherent ideologies or clear constituencies; the relentless search by elites from the old system to find ways to re-enter the emergent new system through both personal and organizational reinvention; and the high degree of public scepticism about all political parties and politicians and the consequent difficulty of building stable party constituencies.
Translating experiences rather than importing lessons
Such similarities provide some basis for western aid providers – public and private alike – to apply accumulated lessons about issues like civil society development, political party building and civic education. Yet these are domains where donors have had at best mixed success even in CEE, as evidenced by widespread political alienation and unstable political party development. Moreover, these familiar issues are now playing out in very different contexts.
For example, while the challenges of supporting civil society development in the Arab world are in some ways familiar to western government aid practitioners and private philanthropists who took on that task in CEE, the presence of active and well-organized Islamist sectors within these societies will have a large impact on how civil society evolves. The same is true for political party building and civic education. Similarly, new Arab constitution-writing processes and transitional elections have brought to the surface many issues that CEE faced after 1989. Yet the social, political and economic differences between the two regions mean that arriving at new political settlements in Egypt and Tunisia will be very different processes from those that took place in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
As they respond to the Arab Spring, western aid organizations and foundations are certainly not starting from scratch. The past two decades of democracy support in the post-communist world and beyond have contributed to significant learning. Yet aid practitioners must push themselves to avoid simplistically importing lessons from other regions. They must instead be translators of experiences, creating sophisticated analytic and practical bridges to connect very different shores.
Thomas Carothers is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Email email@example.com