By Matyas Eorsi
We have more and more reasons to be skeptical about predictions of political analysts and even intelligence services. None of us could foresee that a socially-motivated suicide protest by a young Tunisian man, Mohammed Bouazizi, would be followed by public anger that brought down Tunisia’s brutal dictator. None of us could have seen that the riots would set fire to neighboring North African countries, then move to the Arabian Peninsula. Numerous analyses have been published since then, yet none provides a tool for predicting similar events anywhere in the world.
The “Arab spring” came as a huge — and pleasant — surprise. Is it different from the fall of the Berlin wall and the liberation of Central Europe 22 years ago? Could the collapse of the Soviet empire have been foreseen? As my uncle, dissident writer Istvan Eorsi, said in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had been so weak that it had no strength even to collapse.
Nevertheless, the West was fully unprepared for the changes. When we are critical about other leaders for having been loyal to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak for the sake of stability, we tend to forget that a British prime minister, “Iron lady” Margaret Thatcher, assured Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev that the United Kingdom was not interested in revisiting the Yalta treaty and suggested that the Soviet Union should keep East Germany.
As it was impossible to envisage the events of the Arab spring, so it is impossible to predict to what extent western-type democracies will emerge in the Arab world. Nevertheless, I find derision in the western media regarding the chances for democracy there to be disconcerting. True, it is easier to be pessimistic. If someone had written two decades ago that democracy could not be established in Central Europe, that journalist could write today: Look at Hungary, how a democratically-elected government can dismantle checks and balances, control the media and derogate the independence of the judiciary; so I was right, wasn’t I?
Yet we all know that the journalist would be wrong. Democracy is not a static form to which countries instantly arrive, but rather an endless learning process, with ups and downs.
Obviously, there are several factors that render the democratization process more likely to be successful in Central Europe than in the Middle East and North Africa. Most Central European countries enjoyed democratic traditions from the beginning of the twentieth century until the communist takeover in 1949, and the Soviet occupation could not erase democracy from the memory of the people. Because Soviet-occupied Central Europe constituted a key area in a bipolar world, the liberalization of Central Europe had a major global political impact. Furthermore, because Central Europe lies in the immediate neighborhood of the European Union, pressure to provide western political, economic and other assistance to Central Europe was a foregone conclusion.
It is clear that the Arab world wanted to get rid of its dictators, but it is less clear in what direction an average demonstrator there wanted his or her country to go. In contrast, the countries of Central Europe, besides wanting to end the Soviet occupation and regain their independence, also wanted to become part of western structures such as NATO and the EU. So deep was this desire in all Central European countries that they were ready to do their utmost to meet western democratic criteria of membership.
Such opportunities do not exist in the Middle East and North Africa. The West cannot offer any integration options. Even worse, the West repeatedly faces a dilemma in Egypt in choosing between supporting democracy and risking deterioration in stability and even possible military conflict with Israel.
There are, however, other factors that tend to favor the Arab spring compared to Central Europe. We have noted that freedom in Central Europe came as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were some protests in Czechoslovakia, Poland, the DDR and Hungary, and there was blood in the streets in Romania. But even if freedom was not handed to Central Europeans on a plate, it was more an outcome of history than a result of their own efforts. In contrast, dictators were defeated in all Arab spring countries by the people in the street. Unlike in Central Europe where transition took place basically without even a slap on the face, in the Arab world hundreds of thousands were literally fighting and tens of thousands sacrificed their lives. This is painful for the families and for loved ones, but — and I by no means wish to sound cynical in saying this — it is also a huge political asset for the future. Those sacrifices result in a stronger and deeper sense of ownership.
Democracy must deliver and people in democracy expect better living standards. Communism in Central Europe wiped out market economy behavior and attitudes. As a consequence, when communism fell, far too many people became losers due to the changes. These millions, who enjoyed a better life under communism, cannot be expected to become defenders of democracy. The situation may be different in the Middle East and North Africa, except perhaps for Egypt. Especially in Libya, oil revenues will enable the new leaders to significantly improve living standards and persuade millions of Libyans to continue to support change.
Building democracy is a very long process. It is taking several generations in the heart of Europe. It may take even longer in the Middle East and North Africa, where disappointment is inevitable. Democracy in Central Europe is still a challenge, but it is far better than communism. Whatever the future brings to the Arab world, it will certainly be much better than under Ben Ali and Qaddafi and hopefully under Mubarak
Matyas Eorsi served in leadership positions in the Hungarian parliament from 1990 to 2010 and in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 1994 to 2010. In 2011, he worked in democracy promotion in Jordan and Libya on behalf of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.