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Lessons From 1989: Europe Must Support Democracy In Arab World

Commentary: The Middle East is facing a transformation similar to the one begun in Eastern and Central Europe two decades ago. Europeans must support democratic movements, even in the face of the uncertainty -- and chaos -- it could bring.

Cairo, 2011 (Ramy Raoof)

Politicians do not particularly like it when the status quo is shaken. A fundamental distrust of social upheaval is simply part of their profession. They are better equipped to manage a defective reality, which at least they know, than to confront revolutionary developments that lack certainty or historical precedents.

During such moments, politicians often go silent. Their policies are no longer worked out behind closed doors, but suddenly put on public display. And what politician likes to look powerless in the face of a new reality?

This exact situation is currently playing out in the Arab world. The autocrats and despots who supposedly maintained stability in the troubled region for the past decades are now becoming the debate itself. Across Egypt, the idea is slowly spreading that the country can function without its current rulers. In the political centers of the Western world, we still cannot make sense out of what is happening right before our eyes. For we do not yet know how this story will end.

Egypt as opportunity or risk?

Of course, we also did not know what would happen in 1989, when the people of Central and Eastern Europe began to take fate into their own hands and liberate themselves from the captivity of the Cold War. Back then, the Western political elite did not rejoice over the fact that the people suddenly become directors of their own history, no longer content to be silent objects of international diplomacy.

Even future German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder still saw the fragile status quo of the GDR as leaden reality in June of 1989. "After 40 years of the Federal Republic, we should not lie to a new generation in Germany about the chances of reunification. There are none," he said then in an interview.

Fortunately, today's politicians are avoiding such apodictic statements in face of the Egyptian insurgency. Right now, it's impossible to say whether the uprisings in Cairo and Suez will democratize the Arab world or whether they inherently raise the risk of Islamization in the region. We don't know if Egypt will be the next East Germany or the next Yugoslavia.

Today, we look back at fall of East Germany with the comfortable knowledge that in the end, everything went well. That it could have played out very differently - as it did in Yugoslavia, where a bloody civil war killed 100,000 and stranded millions of refugees - is largely forgotten in retrospect. But at the time, in the summer of 1989, it was not at all clear that the Red Army would remain in their barracks.

Egon Krenz's undisguised threats of a bloody "Chinese solution" were on the table. And the idea of a united Germany was not seen with much optimism in London and Paris. We Germans were very lucky, and many things could have gone wrong. But if things had gone wrong that autumn, would that have discredited the freedom movement? Today, we are witnessing another turning point, but it is far from clear if Egypt is facing its own "fall of the Berlin wall" or if it is headed towards martial law, which was declared in December 1981 in the face of growing protests in Poland.

The young lead the way

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, we may be witnessing the end of a "sealed time" in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This is the term that historian Dan Diner used a few years ago to describe what he saw as a "standstill in the Islamic world." In his book, Diner outlined a region in which the omnipresence of the sacred and the lack of pluralism and democracy has led to a development blockade that has robbed individuals of every opportunity to take their lives into their own hands.

Millions of people are now running against this standstill, especially the younger generation, who are demanding a good life – and they want it now. They refuse to continue to watch helplessly as very rich, corrupt despots get older and they themselves are condemned to wait as their chances for success dwindle.

Therefore, these young Arabs - both men and women - are taking to the streets in the same way that Eastern Europeans did two decades ago because they could not wait for Honecker, Ceausescu or Jaruzelski to finally cave. As Europeans, especially given our recent history, we should understand this human impulse for freedom and autonomy.

We should reach out to protesters in Cairo, Tunis and Amman before others who do not have freedom and self-determination in mind get a chance to do so. Because of course, our sympathy for the protest movement mixes with fears of political Islamism.

Israel warns that an Islamist dictatorship in Egypt could be worse than Mubarak's autocratic rule. That's hard to deny. And it's easy to understand why a country that Iran would like to see wiped off the map would not welcome political change in the region unconditionally.

Ultimately, the question is not if, but how to change the Arab world. In this process lies a great opportunity. But this opportunity calls for an active Europe - not only an active EU - to support Arab democracy movements alongside security guarantees for the Jewish state.

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