I’m guessing that by now most readers of politics related blogs will have had their fill of State of the Union analysis. So I wanted to take this opportunity to shift the conversation to what I think has the opportunity to be the most important political development in 2011, the events that have transpired in Tunisia over the past month. While undoubtedly important for the Tunisian people, the larger question is whether Tunisia could turn out to be the Poland of the Arab world: the first transition away from a regime long thought to be immutable that sets in motion a path of regime change throughout the region. At first glance, this would seem to be extremely unlikely. Prior to Tunisia, it is difficult to remember the last Middle Eastern regime to fall outside of an external invasion (Iran in 1979?). And yet, a quick glance at a Google News search for Tunisia reveals articles linking protests in Tunisia to events in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and even Gabon and Indonesia.
As I have previously noted, I know next to nothing about Tunisian politics. I have, however, studied the collapse of Communism in East-Central Europe in 1989 in some detail, and so would like to offer the following observations about what lessons 1989 might have to offer those prognosticating about 2011.
1) Almost nobody saw the collapse of communism coming. Despite a plethora of scholarship after the collapse suggesting that it was inevitable, you would be hard pressed to find analysts in the 1980s who thought the Iron Curtain was about to come down. So as unlikely as a serious of democratic revolutions spreading through the Middle East might seem from our current vantage point, the chances that the Cold War would come to a (practically) bloodless conclusion so swiftly seemed equally unlikely.
2) One of the most interesting theoretical pieces I ever read about the collapse of communism was a 1991 World Politics article by Timur Kuran (gated, ungated). In this article, Kuran posits that even people living within a regime that is perched on the edge of collapse may not realize it. The mechanism here is to assume that different people have different thresholds for when they will be willing to publicly oppose the existing regime. Imagine a country with 10 people, one person who will protest if there is at least 1 other protesting, 1 if there are 2 other protesting, 1 if there are 3, etc. It is a stable equilibrium for no one to protest. However, if something happens to put just one person out on the streets (say, a particularly difficult interaction with the authorities, or, hypothetically speaking, an emotional response to someone setting themselves on fire), then suddenly everyone ends up protesting. Person 1 comes out because now there is 1 person on the streets. Once person one comes out, then person 2 comes out because there are 2 people on the street, and onward up the chain. The lesson of the story – in my opinion – is that as long as regimes are repressive and we can assume that citizens have accumulated grievances against the regime, then there is always the possibility that the regime could tumble precipitously.
3) While there clearly was a snowball effect during the collapse of communism – with the collapse in one country giving rise to the collapse in other countries – we sometimes forget just how long it took for the first revolution to come to fruition, and how long it then took to spread to the second country. Timothy Garton Ash has this wonderful line in his book The Magic Lantern where he reports having said to Vaclav Havel that “in Poland it took ten years; in Hungary 10 months; in East Germany 10 weeks; perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take 10 days!”. (Rumor has it some subsequently amended this rule to include that in Romania it would take 10 hours.) So one important lesson from 1989 is the fact that snowballs take a while to pick up steam. Events in Tunisia are still unfolding, and may continue to unfold for sometime. This does not necessarily mean they will not eventually spread elsewhere.
4) One fundamental difference that I can not help noting between 1989 and 2011, however, is the lack of a powerful external actor enforcing the non-democratic regimes in the Middle East. East-Central European communist propaganda notwithstanding, few probably doubted by the 1980s the most of the region would throw off communism if Moscow ever gave them the opportunity to do so. Thus perhaps the most crucial information transmitted by the success of the Polish and Hungarian revolutions was precisely the fact that the Russians were not planning on intervening. I’m not sure there is anything analogous in place in the Middle East.
5) There were also direct effects of one revolution on another in the post-communist context, most specifically involving the flow of people. Here the key example is that when Hungary opened its borders, it paved the way for East Germans to get to West Germany. Again, I’m not sure there is anything analogous in the Middle East.
I welcome comments and thoughts from those familiar with the collapse of communism and/or those more familiar with contemporary developments in the Middle East.