From Bucharest to Cairo

The probable course of the ‘Arab Spring’ is likely to be unstable, disruptive and violent.

Roses cartoon 390 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Roses cartoon 390
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
When the “Arab Spring” erupted a year ago, many in the West hailed the development as a breakthrough for democracy in the Middle East and made upbeat comparisons with the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.
But those making these buoyant assessments ignored the unwelcome fact that the majority of people who became “free” as a result of the events in 1989 and 1991 continue to live under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. Moreover, those countries that successfully made the transition to democracy did so because they were able to link themselves politically to NATO and/or the European Union and because of the influx of trillions of dollars of Western economic aid.
West Germany spent an estimated $1.9 trillion in the 20 years following reunification to absorb the former East Germany. Other countries in Eastern Europe also benefited from huge influxes of Western aid and expertise from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and scores of other governmental and private agencies.
It’s a truism that democracy is much more than just holding free and fair elections.
It has to be underpinned by democratic institutions and the establishment of a civil society governed by the rule of law and supported by a fair, politically neutral and uncorrupt criminal and civil justice system. Also required are a free press; a public space in which free speech and political activity can flourish; respect for minorities and for human rights; public accountability; business transparency; and the presence of educational, cultural, scientific and religious institutions and human rights-oriented NGOs.
In late 2006, I went to Bucharest for nine months to help bolster the establishment of a free media by teaching best practices in journalism to professional reporters and journalism students. This was almost 17 years after the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu – so why was such training still needed?
In fact, it quickly became clear that although censorship had long been abolished, the Romanian media was still not operating in a way that could be called democratic. Most newspapers and TV outlets were controlled by commercial or political interests that heavily promoted one view and there was little sense of journalistic independence among reporters. The country suffered from pervasive corruption. Civil society was a work in progress. My time in Bucharest taught me how difficult it is to build a true democracy and how long it can take.
And Romania is one of the success stories. The collapse of communism also led to years of bloody ethnic wars in former Yugoslavia. Democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have proved disappointing. Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to be plagued by divisive conflicts.
Russia, which flirted with democracy, quickly reverted to authoritarianism. Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, eight are brutal autocratic regimes. Belarus is ruled by “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko, who has run his country with an iron fist since 1994.
What do these models teach us about the probable course of the “Arab Spring?” Countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria have little or no democratic traditions and cannot expect the massive influx of aid and expertise that Eastern Europe received after 1989. They cannot be anchored to the democratic West through NATO or the EU. They are riddled with corruption and face intractable economic challenges. And, to top it all, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism militates strongly against the establishment of democracy.
Their future, unfortunately, is likely to be closer to that of Central Asia than the Czech Republic – only more unstable, more disruptive and more violent.
Alan Elsner, author and former Reuters correspondent, is executive director for the Americas of The Israel Project. His latest novel is ‘Romance Language’ set in post-communist Romania.