Comparative Politics

What Eastern Europe teaches us about Egypt: Short Term Optimism and Medium Term Pessimism

Feb 1 '11

I am pleased to welcome back frequent Monkey Cage contributor “Professor Lucan Way”: of the University of Toronto, who has quickly “taken up my call”:https://themonkeycage.local/2011/02/2011_as_1989_next_stop_jordan.html for insight into the question of what comes next in Tunisia and possibly beyond.


The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the “color revolutions”: in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine in the early 2000s provide important signs of what is likely to emerge from the recent protests in the Middle East. The experience of Eastern Europe provide reasons for short term optimism but medium-term pessimism. In the short-term, the fall of Mubarak seems possible – even probable; but a comparison also indicates that democracy is unlikely to establish itself in the medium term.

In the short-term, these events – particularly 1989 – suggest that even long-established authoritarian regimes can collapse “very, very quickly”: The unprecedented protests in the Middle East demonstrate once again how the collapse of authoritarianism in one country can have an enormous impact on the stability of nearby regimes – motivating activists to take risks that earlier would have been unthinkable (Samuel Huntington famously called this phenomenon “snowballing.”) In fact, the Middle East 2011 is an even better example of snowballing than was Eastern Europe in 1989 – where Communism in countries like Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia fell more because of Gorbachev’s decision to withdraw Soviet support than because of the rise of democracy in Poland. In Egypt, events were precipitated only by the example of a strategically minor country – not by withdrawal of external support for authoritarian rule.

Further, Egypt has exhibited some of the same elements that augured the fall of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the early 2000s. In particular, we have seen apparent splits in the coercive apparatus as the military has indicated that it will not violently suppress protests. Early Tuesday, “it appeared that parts of the army may even be facilitating the protest against Mubarak.”: Simultaneously, as in Eastern Europe but in stark contrast to Iran or Cuba, the Egyptian regime does not benefit from the presence of an ideologically driven revolutionary elite willing to take enormous risks to save the regime. As in Ukraine and Georgia in the early 2000s, Mubarak’s regime is held together largely by patronage alone – which is ultimately a “weak source of elite cohesion during crisis”: As a result, Mubarak faces far greater challenges surviving protest than did Ahmadinejad in Iran. Finally, in contrast to the color revolutions, God is evidently on the side of opposition in Egypt. Thus, while nights are relatively cold by Egyptian standards, weather is forecast to be partly sunny and a warm 70 degrees – a far more conducive environment for protest than the subfreezing temperatures in Ukraine in late 2004.

Yet, a comparison with Eastern Europe suggests that democracy is unlikely to emerge shortly. Above all, Egypt does not benefit from a pro-democratic external environment in the form of the European Union that greatly facilitated “democratization in countries such as Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia”: Thus, with the possible exception of Mongolia, the fall of Communism has led to full democratization only in central and south-eastern Europe where the EU has offered the possibility of membership. Arguably, ties between the US and Egypt explain why Mubarak has so far refrained from the kind of midnight assaults on opposition that we witnessed during the crisis in Iran in 2009. Yet, to put it mildly, Egypt’s relations with the West are rather more fraught than they were in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Furthermore, in stark contrast to the color revolutions in the early 2000s, protests in Egypt (and even more strikingly in Tunisia) “lack clear leadership”: In Ukraine in 2004, opposition strategized for months how best to use demonstrations to oust President Kuchma. In both Tunisia and Egypt, protests were almost completely spontaneous and took almost everyone by surprise. While the heavy reliance in Egypt on “spontaneous organization by citizens newly involved in politics is inspiring”:, the apparent dearth of organized opposition makes it more likely that Mubarak will be able to wait out the protests. Indeed, Mubarak’s best strategy is to avoid large scale violence, sit tight, and wait for protests to dissipate.

More broadly, the suddenness of authoritarian breakdown in Tunisia and Egypt does not “augur well for the future of democracy”:https://themonkeycage.local/2010/04/kyrgyzstan_as_a_rotten_door_tr.html – even if Mubarak does step down. The absence of an opposition ready and willing to take control creates a power vacuum that will almost certainly be filled by officials from the old regime. Thus, new governments in Tunisia and (possibly) in Egypt are likely to be “dominated by officials without a clear commitment to democracy and with considerable experience in authoritarian politics”: Simultaneously, the rapid and chaotic nature of the transition means that few institutional reforms are likely to take place. As a result, the old tools of authoritarianism – state dominated media, politicized bureaucracies and security forces – remain available for the new regime. In the absence of strong external democratizing pressure, then, transitions in the Middle East are much more likely to result in new forms of authoritarianism than in democracy.