West must support democracy in Arab world as it did in Central Europe
Western leaders must support democracy in the Arab world now in 2011 as they did in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. The time for viewing dictatorships as defenders of Western civilization is finished.
The summer has not brought consolidation to processes of political change in North Africa. The political landscapes in Egypt and Tunisia are highly volatile. With only a few months before crucial elections, it is still highly uncertain who and what can guarantee that elections will widen and not narrow the road to consolidated democracy.Skip to next paragraph
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This situation is remarkably similar to the one Central Europeans experienced during their summer of uncertainty in 1989. But, whereas Western leaders offered a new vision about political change in Eastern Europe, the clumsy steps by Western leaders in 2011 do nothing to promote guarantees for democratic outcomes in North Africa, and they might actually have detrimental effects.
Democratic transitions in Central Europe in 1989 and those in North Africa today have an important feature in common. Authoritarian regimes on both continents were embedded in geopolitical pacts: External support given to these repressive regimes was seen as integral for sustaining regional stability.
In Eastern Europe, interventions by key Western leaders, at a highly uncertain and crucial conjuncture, helped reframe notions of regional security. Confronting head-on the dominant views that saw regime change in these countries as a potential threat to stability, they pictured democratization as an opportunity to recast global and regional frameworks.
Central European democrats in 1989, like their North African counterparts in 2011, confronted a dual problem in uncharted territory. While challenging the domestic rules of the game that sustained authoritarianism, they also challenged the regional rules of the game that sustained these oppressive regimes. In so doing, they threatened external actors who took for granted that their interests were best served by the status quo.
The latter forces were vocal in Europe, and they have been vocal in the Middle East as well. Only a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were voices in the American and European foreign-policy establishments warning that the events in Central Europe could endanger stability in Europe, citing even the danger of nuclear confrontation. In September 1989, US Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, for example, warned that developments in East Central Europe and the Baltic republics could bring about damaging instability in Europe.
In the background of hesitant American and European reactions, Israel’s response to the unexpected democratization in Egypt has been to strengthen fences on its southern border. Unlike Mr. Eagleburger in 1989, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech, greeted by repeated standing ovations, before a joint session of the US Congress, welcomed attempts at democratization in the Arab world. Yet he added that political changes in these countries might lead to an Iranian type of “ferocious and unforgiving tyranny” or the “medieval rule of Hezbollah.”
In 1989, however, there were Western politicians who saw opportunities for epochal change in the highly uncertain situations in which others saw dangers of unleashing uncontrollable processes. Following earlier visits to the region by Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand, US President George H.W. Bush visited Poland and Hungary in 1989 at a time when the supporters of the old regional and global order were still in the majority.