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Lessons from Eastern Europe for Arab revolutionaries

Last week, Reuters global editor at large Chrystia Freeland wrote in the New York Times about a gathering of scholars and activists at the Central European University in Budapest to celebrate its 20th anniversary. At the event, one of the hot topics was what lessons could be learned from the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 for the countries in the Arab world today. The first lesson, she writes:

…is that selling democracy has become harder now than it was 20 years ago. That’s because, as Aryeh Neier, the human rights activist and head of the Open Society Foundations, explained, the equation of prosperity and democracy, which was universally acknowledged in 1989 and the period that followed, has broken down today.

“In 1989, the U.S. had succeeded in conveying the view that economic prosperity and political freedom go hand in hand,” Mr. Neier said. “That is by no means so certain today. The rise of China and the difficulty the West continues to have in recovering from the financial crisis have broken the link between prosperity and freedom.”

While the link between economic prosperity and democracy has undoubtedly broken down since 1989, Mr. Neier’s explanation for why this is the case misses a very important point. As Joeseph Massad, an associate professor for Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, wrote recently for Al Jazeera:

The people of the Eastern bloc wanted to maintain all the economic gains of the Communist period while calling for democratisation. The US, however, sold them the illusion of “Western democracy” as a cover for their massive US-imposed impoverishment and the dismantling of the entire structure of social welfare of which they had been beneficiaries for decades. Thus in a few short years, and through what Naomi Klein has dubbed the “Shock Doctrine”, Russia went from a country which had less than 2 million people living under the international poverty level to one with 74 million people languishing in poverty. Poland and Bulgaria followed suit.

This explosion of poverty and inequality in Eastern Europe after the embrace of neoliberal capitalism, as Anna Mudeva wrote in a special report for Reuters, has “given way to fond memories of the times when the jobless rate was zero, food was cheap and social safety was high.”

Freeland also notes one other lesson, offered by George Soros, from the meeting at Central European University that is well worth remembering now:

“Revolutions are rarely successful. They often end in tragedy. But they change the behavior of that country afterwards. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution was repressed. But it carried with it the seeds of the successful revolution in 1989.”

At a time when many of us in the West — and on the Arab street — are looking for instant results from the Jasmine Revolution, Mr. Soros’s conclusion is both heartening and frightening. Sometimes, as with Hungary’s 1956 uprising, a successful rebellion can take 33 years to work.

That long view may be one of the greatest gifts Central Europe has to offer Egypt, Tunisia and their neighbors. Pretty soon, we will start to write the obituaries of the Arab Spring. We will begin to talk about how the promise of Tahrir Square has been squandered by the chaotic and corrupt governments the brave people on the street propelled into office. But, as with 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Prague and 1980 in Gdansk, revolutions can be successful even if it takes decades for their promise to flower.