Friday, September 09, 2011

1989 and 2011: Compare and Contrast

Michael Zantovsky
July-August 2011

Michael Zantovsky is currently the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. He has previously served as ambassador to Israel and the United States and as press secretary, spokesman, and political director for President Vaclav Havel.

olstoy famously begins Anna Karenina by observing that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The opposite seems to be true of countries. While there exist vast differences among countries enjoying a measure of hope, prosperity, satisfaction, and development, be they Latvia, India, South Africa, or Chile, social frustration, discontent, and hopelessness seem to be common to countries where a citizen is alienated from what is happening to the extent that it is hard to think of herself or himself as a citizen at all.

For a person to be reasonably content with his lot, living in a society requires a measure of identification, participation, and ownership. Democracies explicitly guarantee a measure of the second and the third with a reasonable shot at the first. Authoritarian regimes, while severely limiting the second, do not rule out the third and thus facilitate the first. Totalitarian regimes prohibit the third, but make up for it by demanding the second and at least some pretense of the first. Unlike authoritarian regimes, they are not content with making people powerless observers of their misdeeds and crimes, but make them accessories after the fact.

These stipulations are worth keeping in mind when trying to understand, if not explain, the recent massive popular movement in the Arab world, which is sometimes called the “Arab Spring.” Chronologically, the term is a misnomer because the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and even the beginning of the developments in Libya took place in winter. “Spring” is clearly referred to here in its metaphorical sense, meaning an awakening or renewal. “Arab Winter” simply would not do. This meaning of the term borrows from a European coinage, first employed as “the Spring of Nations” in reference to the revolutions and revolts across Europe of 1848, which brought to many parts of the continent the ideas of independence, self-government, and participatory rule. The other well-known use is that of the Prague Spring of 1968, which meant a breath of fresh air from the long Communist winter. The events of 1989, which brought down the whole totalitarian house, were on the other hand never referred to as a spring, perhaps because then there was a complete seasonal change.

People have long resisted, or openly dismissed, any attempt at comparing the developments in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 with the overthrow of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. But the similarities are too obvious and too numerous to ignore. They start from the indisputable fact that what we are witnessing are spontaneous popular movements rather than a planned insurrection of an organized political opposition. Like the revolts of 1989, those now in progress do not follow the Leninist scenario of a determined revolutionary action by a tight-knit political vanguard. In their beginnings at least, they had very little in the way of organized leadership, hierarchical structure, or political program. What unites them is a common disgust with the way things had been before. What sets them in motion is a seemingly random event, like the self-immolation in December 2010 of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor long harassed and humiliated by the authorities, or the mistaken rumors of the death of a student protester in Prague on November 17, 1989. Once sparked, the revolution takes on a life of its own and becomes self-fueled and unstoppable.

Which raises the question of what makes a country ripe for a revolution. In many authoritarian regimes, there are countless episodes of abuse, violence, torture, killings, and humiliations by the powers that be without bringing about popular uprisings. In fact, Khaled Said, the symbol of the Egyptian revolution who was killed by the police on an Alexandrian street in June 2010, was known only to a limited group of Facebook activists until the massive protests started more than seven months later. Only when Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali left Tunisia in disgrace did the protests in Egypt start in earnest.

Which leads to another question. How does a revolution travel? Is geography a factor? Or culture? Why is the bug so virulent in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, but largely dormant in Morocco and Jordan?

The explanation clearly needs to be looked for in what the countries in question had in common rather than in the differences between them. In 1989, the situation was quite simple—all the countries that revolted, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union, and ultimately the Soviet Union itself, had shared the same version of a totalitarian political system that called itself the real socialism to disassociate itself from various idealistic, humanistic, and reform-minded versions of the creed. Along with the name “socialism,” the countries shared the same political and economic structure, the same power mechanisms, and the same claims to legitimacy as an expression of a popular will and international solidarity. Ostensibly they also shared the same ideology, which was endlessly bandied about in the rhetorically atrocious speeches of its leaders, in the boilerplate of its media, in the pathetic exhortations on the red banners and placards, and in the mandatory college courses under titles like Scientific Communism and The History of the International Workers’ Movement. It was this uniform hierarchy and its ideological supporting structure rather than the Soviet nukes that at one time made the Communist threat so ominous. Although many observers have noted that this outside uniformity and coherence had been extracted by violence, intimidation, and blackmail, for some time it went unnoticed that the ideology had become an empty shell, paid lip service by all and believed by none. The Hungarian revolt of 1956 deprived it of claims to universality; the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, of legitimacy; and the imposition of the martial law against the Solidarnoscz in 1980, of any claim to a mandate to defend the interests of the working class. What remained were corruption, greed, and spite.

The quasi-republican Arab regimes of North Africa and the Middle East all came into being at about the same time and were founded on and maintained and governed by similar principles. Anti-colonial rhetoric of the Arab leaders played a role similar to the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the Communists—it promised liberation, dignity, and self-government. The Arab nationalism provided an element of international solidarity and a sense of belonging, much like the principle of “proletarian internationalism” did for the Communists. It also made it possible to draw a picture of “the other,” be it the former colonial powers, the newly imperialist America, or the Zionist enemy. The vague ideology of Arab socialism enabled the rulers to concentrate, exploit, and abuse vast economic powers in the hands of the state under the guise of nationalization and socialization.

One by one, the planks of this supporting structure withered away. The colonial powers were long gone without the people’s lot improving much and without much dignity either. The emergence of pan-Arab institutions turned out to demonstrate discord as often as unity. The attempts at an integration along the lines of the Soviet Union between Egypt, Syria, and Yemen failed miserably and revealed a number of underlying social, clan, and ethnic seismic faults. The socialist pretensions of the ruling group degenerated into naked self-enrichment, corruption, and graft, with only an occasional crumb trickling down—the proverbial socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. And the rejectionist approach to Israel not only did not bring statehood to the Palestinians but turned the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in the Arab states into an underprivileged and often despised diaspora.

It hardly mattered for as long as the Middle East remained one of the proxy battlefields of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and its satellites subsidized the crumbling economies of its Arab allies, supplied their armies with military equipment, trained their generals, their terrorists, and their secret police, and on occasion saved them from a total military defeat by intervening on their behalf.

Even before the collapse of Communism, some Arab countries such as Egypt found the Soviet embrace bothersome, unhelpful, and uncomfortably stifling, and turned to the West. The only legacy that such countries preserved from their liaison with the world of real socialism was the mukhabarat state, governed by murky, unaccountable security bodies whose purpose was to intimidate the population into obedience by a combination of harassment, threats, blackmail, violence, torture, and executions.

It is at such time that a regime becomes unsustainable. Stripped of its founding ideals, its claims to legitimacy, its ability to improve the lot of ordinary people, and its capacity to mobilize against an external enemy, it is finally left to rely on threats whose effect is subject to habituation, i.e., eventually wears off. At such moments, any event will spark a conflagration across all the territories that started from a similar point and shared the same gradual erosion of power. In this respect, the cases of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and Arab North Africa and the Middle East are remarkably similar. (Unlike the Middle East’s hereditary republics, North Africa’s monarchies have been thus far largely spared the popular unrest, which points to an additional, tradition-based, and widely accepted source of legitimacy, absent both in these republics and in the countries of the Soviet bloc.)

This, however, is as far as the similarities go. The differences are just as striking and just as important. The revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe quickly developed into a wholesale dismantling of instruments of totalitarian politics and power and just as quickly, however imperfectly, installed standard mechanisms of liberal democracy, free market capitalism, and the rule of law. In the case of one nation that had been straddling the Iron Curtain for forty years, the transformation was almost comical in its simplicity—East Germany became West Germany, West German currency became the East German currency, and Berlin became (a few years later) the capital of a united Germany—but it aptly illustrated the reversal that was contemplated. People chucked out real socialism and put liberal capitalism in its place.

In real life, of course, things were not that straightforward. There were at least two alternatives proposed and to a degree tried and applied. Both failed mainly because they drew heavily on the past and had little to offer the future. The first was the mirage of the “third way,” advocated in Czechoslovakia by some of the hundreds of thousands of former Communists, purged from the party after the Soviet invasion of August 1968 for their true or alleged disapproval of the “internationalist action” to defeat the Czechoslovak “counterrevolution.” Many of them were honorable people, who refused to trade their conscience for their political survival. Some of them were the leading protagonists of the Prague Spring, a unique attempt to bring about “socialism with a human face” (only a few realized the implicit depth of condemnation that made such a qualifier necessary). A few of them became active dissidents, courageously protesting the injustices committed by the political system they had at one time helped to build. They all shared a tendency to think of the Prague Spring as a golden moment, a lost paradise of innocence and harmony and social euphoria. They were not the only ones. It is hard for anyone who was young at the time to forget the thrill of the freedom to speak one’s own mind, of enjoying the suddenly liberated arts, theater, literature, and music, of partaking in the sexual revolution.

Unlike the rest of us, though, they did not remember the time as a fleeting moment of false hope to be replaced by the long despair of normalization, but as a moment of perfection that need not be improved upon or developed further. In fact, socialism with a human face never existed. It was only a set of political proclamations and good intentions that never had a chance to become reality before the Soviet tanks intervened. If it had become reality, it would quickly have taken the same course it took twenty years later, changing from socialism with a human face to capitalism with human flaws.

The other alternative, which happily passed the Czechs by (although it did mark the end of Czechoslovakia as a whole) was the resurgence of nationalism that spread like an epidemic all over the region. After forty years in which expressing a national feeling had been one of the capital heresies in the Communist criminal code, the national reawakening was to some extent natural and perhaps inevitable. At the same time, it offered a fast track to power and wealth to many an unscrupulous politician. Not quite incidentally, most of its leading lights, such as Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, and Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia happened to be former Communists who took up nationalism in order to avoid being marginalized in a democratic system. Before the epidemics petered out in the mid-1990s, leaving behind only an occasional outburst or an obscure group of crazies, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia all became history and in Yugoslavia tens of thousands lost their lives in the worst civil conflict since the end of World War II. In the end, five years of the malaise were enough to show to most people in Central and Eastern Europe that the way forward led through free markets, liberal capitalism, and integration into NATO and the EU. Fifteen years later, the nationalist threat seems to be a thing of the past, although it keeps popping up in the guise of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and populism in a number of places in the Old and New Europe alike.

The revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe seem to have been a relatively rare case of political change where the absolute collapse of the ancien régime, a high degree of consensus on a new course, and a lack of viable alternatives combined to make history seem simple and straightforward. For the same reasons, it is unlikely to be replicated in other places at other times, including the countries of North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. The differences and complicating factors are manifold.

First, although many of the countries with recent upheavals shared the political underpinnings and the ideological vacuum of the mukhabarat state, there was not a single center of uniform power, whose weakness and eventual collapse could lead to almost uniform changes. There was no center of gravity, no Soviet Union that could have made the changes appear first impossible and then ludicrously easy. Each country had its own power structures, with their own levels of adaptability, resistance to change, and the willingness to use force, all leading to different outcomes. Thus we could see the limited changes in Tunisia, a revolution in Egypt supervised by the military, a civil war in Libya, and a brutal counter-attack in Syria. After six months and counting, the overall outcome is still uncertain. In contrast, the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe were basically over in six weeks. Only the changes in Romania were accompanied by violence and perhaps not by accident, as Romania had for years been moving in a rather eccentric outer orbit of the Soviet system.

Second, the degree of consensus on what needs to be changed, and how, is much lower in the Middle East than it was in Central Europe twenty years ago. Again, the underlying nature of the ancien régime makes the difference. The Arab countries in question were certainly authoritarian regimes, with a number of methods and mechanisms borrowed from the totalitarian playbook, but they were not totalitarian regimes as such. The difference is between the fragmentary nature of undemocratic power mechanisms in the former and the comprehensive, all-encompassing nature of the latter.

When a totalitarian regime collapses, it collapses totally because no single part of it will eventually function on its own without the rest. The authoritarian governments in the Middle East permeated a number of areas of life, especially those having to do with politics, security, and social change, but left other spheres largely, though not completely, alone. There was a limited interference of the government into the economy, usurping the monopolies for the state, but leaving small entrepreneurs alone if they paid their dues in bribes and in loyalty; a limited censorship; a ban on all political dissent but allowing for Western-type popular culture; a limited uniformity, reserving all political power for the party-state, but allowing for religious plurality; some civic associations and family ties. The difficult task, which we in Europe did not have to face, will be to decide what can be salvaged and what needs to be discarded in the new era.

While there has been in the recent protests no powerful expression of Arab nationalism, which had apparently spent itself in the 1950s and ’60s, and which, unlike nationalism in Europe, had been largely a centripetal rather than centrifugal force, there exists, in Islam, a powerful ideological alternative to liberal capitalism with aspirations to become a dominant political force and organizer of the society. In all post-Communist countries, religion has made a strong resurgence after, and sometimes before and during, the political changes, but it had neither the power, nor perhaps the ambition, to become a central political player. Christian democratic parties, which refer to Christianity and religion as the fountain of their moral ethos but make few if any attempts to impose strictures based in religion on the society as a whole and are totally separated from the clergy and the church, are a standard element of the political system in most European countries but rarely, with the exception of Germany and Austria, the dominant element.

The situation is completely different in the Middle East, which has no separation between the church and the state (and indeed no church), no history of religious reformation, and a tradition of a literal interpretation of the Koran. When it becomes the dominant social force, Islam is not only adopted by the state, it becomes the state. In its mildest incarnation, the state refers to Islam and its legal code, sharia, as the source, fountain, and inspiration of law. In its stricter, fundamentalist form, advocated by the wahhabists in Saudi Arabia or the salafists in Egypt, sharia, complete and immutable (because it is based on the original teachings of the Prophet), becomes the law. It is never clear if this is what the population at large wishes for and wants to see happen. It is, however, crystal clear, that although sharia can become a rule of law sui generis, by token of its being ordained from above, it cannot be the rule of the people and by the people, though it still could be for the people. It is also poorly adaptable to the perpetually changing conditions of the modern world. One of the most essential, though perhaps the least popular, attributes of democracy is its dynamic instability, which makes it possible to change tack and correct past mistakes to clear the way for new ones.

From this perspective, political Islam appears to be an unlikely candidate for benefitting from the popular revolutions whose ethos was clearly future-oriented, aiming for more openness, more democracy, and a reconnecting with the modern world. Islamic leaders in Egypt and elsewhere seem to be aware of this disconnect more than anyone else and are very keen to disclaim any ambition to the leadership of the social processes afoot, let alone any hegemonic aspirations. At the same time, though, they are clearly not ready to let history pass them by and are busy organizing and positioning themselves to benefit from opportunities that they rightly anticipate as coming soon. Just like in Central Europe, the revolutionary upheavals will inevitably bring about a period of uncertainty, insecurity, and economic hardships, leading to massive frustrations, disappointments, and conflicts. The weakening or collapse of the mukhabarat state will give way to organized crime, violence, and chaotic struggle for new economic opportunities. Just like in Central Europe, with its nationalistic flare-ups, this will be the moment for the Islamists to offer the easy solution of collective identity and traditional values as a way to provide the basis for law and order. In this they will draw upon their superior organization and resources, as well as on the support of some strange bedfellows, not least among them many of the people who until recently had been busy suppressing and jailing the Islamists.

The only way to avoid this scenario is a broad movement of the secular forces embodying the ethos of the mass protests and the least common denominator of a consensus on the road ahead so as to generate the critical energy needed to move through the transition process in manageable time and at manageable costs. The Solidarnoscz in Poland or the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia represented just such a consensus, although they in fact consisted of a number of disparate groups whose incompatibility eventually led to their demise and the emergence of political parties along more or less standard lines. The year or so they stuck together was nevertheless enough to give the transition a direction and a momentum. The victors of the mass protests in North Africa and the Middle East face a similar decision. If they succumb to the temptation to set up immediately a number of tents along ideological, regional, or ethnic divides, or if they begin to clash in a rush to divide the spoils of the revolution, they will likely share the fate of certain democratic oppositions in Europe, once powerful in Belarus, once victorious in Ukraine.

The past is in some respects as treacherous as the future. Decades of injustice, arbitrary rule, and poverty, on the one hand, and wealth derived from corruption, on the other, provoke outbursts of long pent-up anger and clamoring for settling accounts. The instinct is toward quick and wholesale administration of justice to provide an outlet for the popular emotions and win the support of the population. Understandable and justified as it is, a deep breath and some reflection are in order. The incarceration and expected trial of the Mubarak family in Egypt, or of the families of Ben Ali and his wife in Tunisia, are a manifestation of the popular impatience—and of its populist satiation. Whether Mubarak and Ben Ali deserve to be put on trial, which they probably do, is beside the point. The point is that after decades of arbitrary verdicts passing for justice, the prosecutorial and judicial systems are in no position to administer the law in a remotely even-handed fashion. The risk is that such revolutionary justice will spawn new injustices and lead to new conflicts, preventing any chance of a fair resolution. There is a major difference between establishing a new rule and establishing the rule of law.

There are several mechanisms that can be used to deal with the past in a more even-handed and even-tempered way. One is the truth and reconciliation commission, which has been used in such countries as Chile and South Africa after decades of undemocratic rule. Such a commission serves an important role in recounting the stories of suffering and oppression, although it rarely discovers the full truth or attains full reconciliation. The other is the screening and vetting procedures designed to shield the fragile new political systems from high-level former officials and from the agents of security services and practiced at various times and with various outcomes in Central and Eastern Europe following 1989. Still another, not to be recommended, is the kind of consensual amnesia that took hold after periods of authoritarian and totalitarian rule in some European countries. Whichever of these methods is chosen, the result will still be as messy, complex, and frustrating as the history that produced it. In some measure, however, the process is more important than its outcome. Its preemption by what is in one way or another summary justice only serves to obscure the historical record, preserve the anonymity of most of the culprits, and enable the perpetuation of established power structures and their methods of maintaining control.

The last lesson of 1989 that the Arab Spring could conceivably benefit from is that external factors matter. The policies of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George H. W. Bush, and Helmut Kohl provided a favorable framework for the transition process. There was, with the exception of East Germany, no Marshall Plan, no massive program of economic assistance up front. But there was a consistent support for the democratic forces combined with tangible benefits commensurate to their progress. And there was a massive transfer of democratic know-how and experience through think tanks, programs, conferences, advisers, volunteers, and scholarships. Much of it was aimed at young people. Much of it bypassed the governments and dealt directly with the institutions of the civil society. Twenty years later, these people are the best guarantee of the lasting nature of the changes.

Some of the same considerations may apply to the Arab Spring. The aid and the assistance that are forthcoming should be used to empower the groups that carried the protests forward rather than to subsidize the budgets. A high degree of conditionality should accompany aid to governments. Debt relief, already announced for Egypt, may be unavoidable, but it will not energize the Egyptian economy. What Egypt and the other Arab countries also need are bold economic reforms that will unleash the hidden productive potential and correct the distortions in the market, including the huge subsidies on foodstuffs, fuel, and other products. Again, a firm grasp of the objectives and how to attain them is essential. The signs, thus far at least, are not very encouraging.

The next few months will show whether the Arab revolts of winter 2011 were more like the romantic but ultimately failed European springs of 1848 and 1968 or whether by ushering in irreversible and lasting changes they will prove the distant cousins of the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe of the fall of 1989. To complicate matters further, the changes will take place on several different planes with different temporal characteristics. As Ralf Dahrendorf pointed out in his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, it takes about six months to organize a free and democratic election, it takes something like six years to lay down the foundations of a functioning market economy, but it may take three generations before people internalize the changes in their minds. By this definition, we in Central and Eastern Europe are still only somewhere in the middle of the story.

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