State of the World: Will 2011 be the next 1989?

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.

14 Responses to State of the World: Will 2011 be the next 1989?

  1. Benjamin Geer January 26, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    Another thing to take into account is that since 1989, current authoritarian regimes have had 22 more years to learn from the mistakes of earlier authoritarian regimes. No doubt some of them have been better at this than others. Looking at Egypt, for example, you could argue that, compared to Sadat, Mubarak has been more adept at using a mixture of repression and limited concessions to protesters’ demands in order to keep protest within manageable limits. Of course, that kind of strategy might still not be good enough in the long run.

  2. Xavier January 26, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    I was going to comment, but I ended up posting a much longer response on my blog:

    In general, I totally agree, though – I would not discount the possibility that we are about to witness another wave of at least regime change.

  3. DavidG January 27, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    Isn’t there one, glaring difference between 1989 and rthe Middle East today: The lack of a foreign occupying power? The authoritarian Mideast regimes may be supported by outside governments. But, they are not literally kept in power by a foreign, occupying army, as the EE’s were.

    Beyond that, both Poland, Hungary, and (especially) Czeckoslovakia had a Westernized intelligensia and at least some history of indigenous democratic(ish) pluralism. I don’t think any Mideast countries really have this, except Lebanon, which has much larger problems.

  4. Xavier January 27, 2011 at 4:13 am #

    I think people overemphasize the importance of the occupying armies. There were no Soviet troops in Romania or Yugoslavia, for example, and communism still fell in those countries (though of course, the fall of these regimes didn’t necessarily lead to democracy at least at first). Honecker was pretty willing to use his own security forces and his army against East German protestors even when it was clear that the Soviets would not intervene. Jaruzelski nipped the first upsurge of solidarity in 1981 with domestic security forces, not Soviet troops. Yes, the threat of Soviet intervention was psychologically very important, but I think it would be a streatch to say that the regimes were literally “kept in powr” by Soviet troops.

    I also think that the importance of having a westernized intelligentsia and a tradition of indigenous democratic pluralism is also exaggerated. “Basic” democratic politics can work well enough without these things, though the resulting democracies (Romania, Bulgaria, or many other countries) may not be especially pretty to look at.

  5. Xavier January 27, 2011 at 4:19 am #

    (Sorry for all the typos)

  6. Nobby January 27, 2011 at 5:17 am #

    Interestingly, I was a visitor to the Soviet Union in 1989 and also Tunisia at the end of last year. In neither case, did I get the impression that the country was on the verge of revolution, but I did see interesting parallels.

    One crucial aspect was the state pushing out the same old propaganda about how good everything was, which was in such marked contrast to people’s everyday lives, it created contempt for the leadership. There was a feeling that if they needed to create such blatant lies, things must be very bad indeed and the leadership must feel vulnerable.

    I can see parallels in the US today, but the major difference is the average Russian in 1989, or Tunisian in 2011 is actually more aware of society that the average American today.

    As for what the tipping point can be, it seems to me that the young man who self-immolated in front of the police station created such a powerful symbol of bravery or anger, that it made many feel taking to the streets was a mild act. I can see it spreading to other countries, but I have far less optimism about what might emerge in say Egypt (which will descend into total chaos) or Jordan (which will descend into tribal conflict). On the other hand, I have a lot of hope that Tunisia will become a far better nation as a result of this change.

  7. Andrew Perrin January 27, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    I, too, spent a good bit of time in pre-’89 Eastern Europe (particularly East Germany) and have been struck by the similarities in life there and as documented in Havel’s work on Czechoslovakia on the one hand, and Lisa Wedeen’s work on Syria and Yemen. Perhaps the similarities in political culture (symbolic saturation) are of interest too.

  8. Cheryl Rofer January 27, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    My comments here.

  9. DavidG January 27, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Incidentally, the best account of events in Eastern Europe during 1988-91 that I’ve encountered is in Tony Judt’s book Postwar. It’s one of the best 900 pages on history you can read, IMO.

  10. ivandh January 28, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    When I heard tanks were being deployed in Egypt, it reminded me of the same thing in Russia. The tanks ended up being no more than a prop in a photo-op for Boris Yeltsin.

  11. Ryan January 28, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    “When I heard tanks were being deployed in Egypt, it reminded me of the same thing in Russia. The tanks ended up being no more than a prop in a photo-op for Boris Yeltsin.”

    Absolutely. What a powerful moment in recent revolution history.

  12. Joshua Tucker January 28, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    For those that are interested, this has now appeared in a slightly revised form (which now reflects the efforts of a copy-editor as well as the passage of the last couple days) as an “Op-Ed at Politico”:

  13. napablogger January 29, 2011 at 12:32 am #

    Don’t forget China in 1989, Tianamen Square. The push for freedom there was repressed, but had a huge impact that is still unfolding. The communist party still controls the government, but it has had to gradually reform. This could happen in Egypt.

  14. Albert Klamt January 29, 2011 at 4:31 am #

    Greetings from Berlin. I am Associate Editor of Integral leadership REview and Bureau Chief for German speaking countries Austria, Germany, Switzerland.

    Witnessed very closely the events in 1989 in Germany and Eastern Europe. Timothy Garton Ash is on spot investing so much attention and energy to this year. Globally.

    A certain electricity of global change can be felt. Regarding Mideast I see the dangers of flamethrowing and chaotic developments as much as some progress.

    The center for human emergence Mideast

    has in my eyes a great and complex understanding for shifts and necessary change in this region. Beyond war and peace.

    Its about emergence, development and vertical complexity. Which is seldom understood.

    The state of the world needs these lenses. As Proust and Schopenhauer already knew the real discoveries are not only finding newe continents but seeing the world with new eyes.

    Best, from Europe/Germany

    Albert Klamt