Marat Terterov has a post up at New Europe called “Five reasons to be sceptical about Arab Spring.” Terterov outlines a number of major obstacles faced by many of the protest movements in the Middle East, including the enduring power of Middle Eastern militaries, the strategic environment that leads to uneven support from Western powers, and the long-declining regional influence of vanguard states like Tunisia and Egypt. Terterov’s points are mostly well-taken, though I’m frankly not sure why the fact that neither Mubarak nor Ben-Ali were the originating figures of their respective political systems is relevant. By that logic, shouldn’t the Assad regime have fallen by now? Or does the family factor cancel the point? Anyway, I’ve taken a consistently skeptical eye toward the more wildly optimistic predictions about the Arab Spring. Probably a bit too skeptical, as I originally assumed Mubarak would figure out a way to stay in power, and was pleasantly surprised when the Egyptian people proved me wrong.
In general, though, I think Terterov and others make far too much of the comparison with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. If what Terterov means by “scepticism” is that the Arab Spring won’t lead to a general, region-wide transformation of Middle Eastern states from various despotic ruling systems into stable, vibrant democracies, frankly I think he’s setting up a straw man. I haven’t seen too many grounded, historically-informed people who think that’s going to happen. And for those who do, they’re both caricaturing and misapplying the Eastern European case. First, the fall of Soviet-bloc communism was messier and more uneven than it appears in hazy retrospect. Political and economic reforms were strongest in the northwestern part of the bloc (East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia) and got weaker and more erratic as one traveled East and South. This was because – shockingly – such revolutions were locally contingent events that preceded from different historical and institutional baselines, and so had different outcomes. The eventual (relative) homogeneity of Eastern Europe as stable and capitalist and basically democratic (except here and here and (ish) here) had a lot to do with the fact that the newly-liberalizing states were quickly embraced by an economically-strong Western Europe with a powerful institutional mechanism to encourage and lock in reforms. This is a situation for which there is little historical precedent, and one that emphatically does not apply in today’s Middle East.
If we’re going to look for historical analogies for regionally-contagious revolutions, I think the European Revolutions of 1848 probably make more sense. They shook the old order at its foundations, led to some important governmental shifts, unleashed new popularly-supported movements into European politics, overthrew one important regime, consigned the Metternich system to history and coincided with the publication of a pamphlet or two. They led to fundamental shifts in European political life. They did not, however, lead to anything like an immediate or simultaneous overthrow of European despots in favor of liberal nationalist governments. Most governments survived, albeit many in altered, more popularly-responsive forms. The 1848 Revolutions were seminal events in the development of modern liberal polities, but for the most part they only partially succeeded when measured against the hopes of their most optimistic champions.
And yet they were a really, really big deal.
Without trying to glean too many specific points from an analogy that’s more than a century-and-a-half old, we really shouldn’t underestimate the fact that, even if no more Middle Eastern despots fall in the immediate future, the politics of most Middle Eastern countries will be fundamentally altered by the events we’re witnessing now. The legitimacy of regimes across an entire region has been brought irreversibly into question, and it won’t be restored to health without some very meaningful shifts in governance and geopolitical alignment. To me, that’s not a reason for skepticism. That’s incredible. That’s an amazing testament to political courage and to peoples’ fundamental desire to enjoy dignity and rights and justice. That’s a reason for hope.