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Boats on the river Nile, the pyramids in the background
Egyptian history has become even richer this yearImage: AP

Road to democracy

May 27, 2011

The moment public might ousted the ruling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, analysts began to compare the Arab Spring revolutions with those in Eastern Europe. But are these comparisons meaningful?


When Germans from both sides of the Berlin Wall stood atop it on that memorable night in November 1989, excitement reverberated throughout Europe, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.

Two decades later, on the far side of that southern body of water, history appears to be repeating itself. People have found a collective voice, and in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, have already used it to get rid of rulers who had far outstayed their welcomes. There were plenty of dictators in Eastern Europe as well, and they, like their Arab contemporaries, found themselves forced out by the very people they sought to dominate.

These similarities are undeniable, and much has been made of them in the past months. But are the bones of the circumstances alike enough for Middle Eastern countries en-route to democracy to be able to learn from the experiences of their northern neighbors?

Getting closer

Said Sadek, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, believes they are. And he attributes that belief, at least in part, to the influence Eastern European countries had in the Arab world back in the '50s and '60s.

"At that time many Middle Eastern countries adopted socialist policies. They sent people to study in East Germany, Poland and Hungary; they made arms deals; and they copied the model of security systems in operation in Communist countries," Sadek said.

border guards stand behind a section of the berlin wall which crowds on the other side have pulled down
The end of an era; the start of a transition to democracyImage: AP

Leaders in the Arab world watched the world-changing events of 1989 with a keen, yet dismissive, eye. They were little concerned that the same kind of revolutions would knock down their own doors.

Relations between the Middle East and Eastern Europe subsequently cooled, but Sadek says the revolutions sweeping through Arab nations at the moment can bring the regions closer together again.

"There are a lot of similarities which we should investigate," he told Deutsche Welle. "We should be asking how to end one-party monopolies, how to establish democratic parties, how to build democratic institutions, how to empower women, and how to dismantle the security system."

Same, same but different

Shelves and shelves of files
After 1989, Stasi files were made available for viewingImage: dpa - Bildfunk

Dimitar Bechev, a senior policy fellow and head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Sofia noted that there is scope for Arab countries to explore the different ways in which Eastern-bloc countries dealt with their security services.

"If you look at Eastern Europe, there are many examples and models. In Bulgaria and Romania the problems were swept under the carpet, whereas Stasi files were made available," he said. It is essential to have some institutions in place to deal with those dark chapters of a country's history, he added.

One of the most striking differences between the two regions is that Eastern European countries pursued simultaneous transition towards democracy and the market economy, while some Arab states, such as Egypt, took their first strides towards privatization many years ago.

Investment would be good

Protesters in Tunisia
Unemployment has been a main issue for protesters in the Middle EastImage: AP

But there is still a long way to go to further the process across the region, to ensure rising living standards, to better manage and distribute wealth, and to end corruption, Bechev says. Failure to achieve these basic tenets of a democratic society could lead to serious problems further down the line, he added.

"We could then have a scenario where there is a backlash because revolutionaries and the middle classes see that democracy has not delivered."

According to Sadek, investment in the region could help to prevent such an eventuality. He stresses that while nobody is looking for a handout, the right support in the right places would go a long way to help stabilize countries in a state of flux.

Learning from mistakes

According to Radoslaw Markowski, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities, a key is to set out clearly the rules of the economic game.

Women shout at protests
Empowering women is a must for a democratic Middle EastImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"This is important in the long-run, especially when facing a problem of dealing with inequalities and how to embark on more egalitarian policies," he said.

Also advisable, he says, is clearly identifying where the regime stops and where market economy and democracy start - something his own country didn't do.

"Poland had ten smooth years of transition, and people asked where the threshold had been," Markowski said. "I would devise a symbolic event, invent a name, invent something like a round table."

On the whole he believes it is up to Arab countries going through a transition period to pick and choose: to freely take what they deem helpful from the European experience. But, he says, given the close relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East, countries in the region would be looking at a different kind of democracy.

The European cushion

An EU flag
The EU has a role to play in the Middle EastImage: AP

Much has been made over the years about the role of the EU in guiding its newer members to be good Western democracies. And equally, much is being made now of the lack of any equivalent body to help Arab states on their way. But Bechev plays down that relationship, saying the European Union sometimes takes a bit too much credit.

"I'm afraid that the role of the EU has been misinterpreted," he said. "It locked in reform that was already coming from the inside. It wasn't that someone in Brussels made all the decisions."

Markowski agrees that European Union conditionality was blown out of proportion. He argues that, had Poland stayed outside the bloc, it still would have had to make 80 percent of the reforms that it made anyway.

But even if the EU didn't play as important a role as legend might have it, Said Sadek says a similar body could play a critical role in North Africa and the Middle East.

"We learned how to operate a state security system, now we need to learn how to have a democratic state compliant with human rights," Sadek concluded.

Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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