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.
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.
These visits were used to express unambiguous readiness to welcome change in the old regional and global order and offer an inspiring vision about the potential new international order that could come about as a result of successful democratization in Central Europe.
In his speech in Warsaw on July 10, 1989, Mr. Bush cast democratization as an opportunity to move beyond bipolar geopolitics: “Poland is where the Cold War began, and now the people of Poland can help bring the division of Europe to an end.”
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He echoed these themes two days later in Budapest, adding that the guiding principle of the United States would be to “offer assistance not to prop up the status quo but to propel reform,” emphasizing that the United States would offer assistance – but only if negotiations resulted in institutionalized safeguards for pluralist democracy.
Bush’s public speeches pictured domestic supporters of peaceful democratization as prime movers (and future beneficiaries) of epochal changes in regional and global politics. Widely reported in the region, they sent signals to still dormant or hesitant reformers and inactive democratic opposition in the other Central and Eastern Europe countries about what roles the future might hold for them.
What is strikingly different between the summer of 1989 and that of 2011 is the deafening silence of the leaders of Western democracies today. The decision by both the US and the European Union to give financial support to the transition governments before the inauguration of democratic rule might strengthen the hold on power by representatives of the old regimes.
If President Obama wants to support democratization in North Africa, now is the time to do so. Revisiting Cairo, he could speak publicly to the people of the region, articulating a robust vision of a Middle East, not with one besieged democracy but of several consolidating democracies. As 1989 was the time to end the division of Europe, so is this the time to end the division of the Middle East by pointing to the shared benefits of political, economic, and cultural integration among the old and the new democracies in the region backed by support of the leading Western democracies.
The time for presenting dictatorships as defenders of Western civilization is finished. It is time that support in the Arab world should be a strategic policy of support for all democracies in the region.
Laszlo Bruszt is professor and chairman of the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. David Stark is the Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Columbia University in New York City. Their coauthored book, “Postsocialist Pathways: Transforming Politics and Property in East Central Europe,” will be translated and published in Arabic in 2012.