Europe’s Silence

Much attention has been devoted to the difficulty of the US administration to deal with rapidly changing events in Tunisia and Egypt. However, the European Union has been equally struggling in endorsing the popular demand for reform and democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region. While Europe might have less of a military investment in the region, the repercussions of instability in the Middle East might be more direct–beginning with potential refugee flows. At the same time, more than half of the EU experienced democratic revolutions in during the past generation: Not only the countries of Central Europe, but also Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Greece) saw the ouster of dictatorships governing in the name of stability in the past 35 years. The countries can be a model for the Middle East and while overthrowing tested and tried dictators always brings with it uncertainty, the European Union at its core should understand the demands of citizens in the Middle East for greater rights and democracy.

It is thus a great pity, that the EU has not seized the moment to support the pro-democracy movements in the region more vocally. Sharing the know how and the advantage of democracy and the rule of law are after all the greatest export the EU can offer.

5 October = 1 February? Or how the regime will end in Egypt

The mass protests called for today remind of the demonstrations organized by the Serbian opposition against the Milosevic regime on 5 October 2000. A make or break confrontation which will force the hand of those sitting on the fence. So what are the possible scenarios now?

1. The protests peter out: Revolution aborted

This is what the regime hopes. The demonstrations will exhaust themselves, increasingly disunited over what to do will just fade away. Afterward the regime cracks down on opposition. While this might be plausible which much smaller demonstrations, the number of people on the street just seems to large for this scenario.

2. The protesters will take over: A Revolution

The protesters will take over institutions and push Mubarak out. Mubarak has to flee if he does not want to risk his life. Such a fully fledged revolution seems equally unlikely as there are too many actors who have in the past supported the regime and will have an interest in preventing a total collapse of the old system. In particular the army has retained sufficient legitimacy to remain a relevant institution.

3. Protesters are attacked: Tiananmen scenario

Security forces suppress mass protests violently, considering the number of protesters the violence against the demonstrators has to be substantial to have any chance of success. Considering the army declaring its support for the grievances of the demonstrators, such a scenario would suggest that those using force would be themselves coming under attack, probably by the army. Thus, this would be more like the Romania 1989 scenario than China 1989. The use of force would also prevent those committing it to have some part in the new regime. In effect, at this point only those with nothing to lose would be candidates.

4. Protestors succeed: 5 October

The protesters show by their numbers that the old regime has lost all legitimacy, they take over crucial symbols of the old regime (TV?) and force the hand of those hedging their bets. As they change sides, the old regime crumbles.

What happens today does not depend on Mubarak, and maybe not so much on protesters either (as long as they show in large numbers), but on those members of the old regime who will have to decide which way to go today. If they decide that Mubarak has no future (which seems pretty obvious), there will be little space for Mubarak to continue.

The challenge might be of what happens on 2 February. In Serbia, 6 October has become the metaphor of the incomplete revolution–the unsavory deals made to secure the end of the Milosevic regime. While such a  Pacted Transition (as in Spain) has greater chances of leading to stable new government and prospects for democracy are better, there is a risk that many Egyptian might feel like the protests did not bring the change they hoped for. This, however, is a topic for another day.

The Otpor connection in Egypt

When I was following some tweets on Egypt, I was struck when I came across the symbol of Otpor. Subsequently I noticed that a number of protesters also using the Otpor symbol. The obvious question is whether this use of symbols was coincidental and some movements or protesters in Egypt were just inspired by Otpor or whether there are stronger links. A number of Serbian news sources of varying quality (Alo, Vesti Online) have now published articles suggesting that former Otpor activists have been training some opposition groups, including interviews with anonymous former Otpor members and the Serbian embassy. The main group in question seems to be April 6, launched first as a facebook group. The group has currently over 87,000 members and has been active for nearly three years already. According to recently released wikileaks documents, the group appears to have enjoyed some support from the US government, but the assessment of the US state department interloctutor in late 2008 is telling: The 6 April representative “offered no roadmap of concrete steps toward April 6’s highly unrealistic goal of replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to the 2011 presidential elections. Most opposition parties and independent NGOs work toward achieving tangible, incremental reform within the current political context, even if they may be pessimistic about their chances of success. xxx wholesale rejection of such an approach places him outside this mainstream of opposition politicians and activists.” It seems like recent events have shown that the assessment of the group was more astute than the US state department.

Clearly, the main inspiration for the protests came from Tunisia, not Serbia, but the Otpor connection is telling for two reasons: First, it demonstrates that pro-democracy movements are linked across continents and lessons are learned. Second, the wikileaks cable shows that the US state department was in communication with opposition to the Mubarak regime already in 2008. It thus seems simplistic to accuse the government of just propping up Mubarak without listening to alternatives. The Otpor connection also suggests that there was at least some level of financial support for opposition groups from the US, even if it wasn’t the administration directly.


Tunisia and Egypt: Lessons from 1989 and the Colored Revolutions

Before the demonstrations in Egypt gathered momentum in Egypt, I wrote a short analysis of events in Tunisia, which is published in today’s Presse. In it I argue that the likelihood the fall of the Ben Ali regime will lead to democracy depends on a number factors, including the neighborhood, the larger geopolitical environment and a shared domestic goal. In particular, the regional context matters. Democratization processes are considerably more difficult if the country is surrounded by authoritarian regimes which all hope for the experiment in democracy to fail (see esp. in Kyrgyzstan). If the whole neighborhood goes, not all countries might succeed, but the old model of authoritarianism is clearly no longer acceptable. Thus, I would argue for Tunisia to have a good shot at democratizing, it’s example needs to be emulated in the region.

League of Extraordinary Gentleman

The question now is whether the protests in the region will lead to 1989–the collapse of regimes in a domino across the region–or the colored revolutions of the 2000s when a few countries began democratizing (or rather restarted) but often remained in an undemocratic environment (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan). There are strong reasons to believe that what we witness is more like 1989.

First, the trigger for the protests against the authoritarian regimes is not a rigged election, as was the case in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia or Kyrgyzstan. Instead, it is general dissatisfaction with the system. Like Communist regimes, the autocrats in the Arab world have been increasingly unable to live up to the “bargain” they had offered. Stability and moderate increases in living standards for accepting authoritarian rule. The regimes have been increasingly unable to deliver.

Second, the age factor. The average age of the leaders of the Communist leaders in Eastern Europe in 1989 was 74. The average age of some of the Arab leaders  (Ben Ali, Mubark, Saleh, Gaddafi, Bouteflika) is close to 73. They represent a petrified a political system with little prospects for internal reform. While some countries have had younger leaders through dynastic succession (Assad, King Mohammed VI, King Abdallah), they represent the failure of the systems to fundamentally change from within.

Third, the demonstration effect suggests close links between the protests in the region. A protest in one country (Tunisia) helped break the fear in others. As it is not rigged elections which triggered the protests, the circumstances have also allowed the protests to spread rapidly. Once demonstrators lose the fear to go to the streets, the options of the regimes are severely limited.

None of these similarities mean that the regime will fall automatically. There is still the Tienanmen scenario for some regimes, while others might hope for protests to fizzle out. As they do not depend on a single backer (save for the US in a number of cases), like the Soviet Union, the links between the regimes are less immediate and the dominoes might not yet fall.

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