UNITED, NATIONS – A seamless political thread running through the current U.N. General Assembly debate has been that of the Arab Spring, the movement that has shifted the political sands throughout the Middle East.
Yet, among the often self-congratulatory messages praising the Arab Spring, some former East Bloc states have offered sage socio-political advice on how to manage the transitions from dictatorship to democracy.
While the nature of the former East Bloc was a rigid socialist system enforced by the former Soviet Union, the Arab Spring countries, among them Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, were not beholden to a single external political patron as much as they were reflections of traditional Arab authoritarianism and personality politics. While the rule may have been politically suffocating, it was not dependent on or supported by an outside force as was the case in the Czech Republic, Hungary or even East Germany.
Alluding to the uneasy transition from communism to democracy, Czech President Vaclav Klaus stated: “To remove several leading politicians is not the crucial moment of the much needed systematic change … when the Iron Curtain in Europe fell, more than twenty years ago. I used to talk about three mutually interconnected preconditions for successful transformations: to have a clear and transparent concept of where to go, to have a feasible strategy of how to get there, and to be able to motivate the citizens of the country to promote it.”
President Klaus observed, “I still do not see these preconditions in some of the countries of Northern Africa. … I want to stress that systemic change cannot be agreed upon or pre-arranged at international conferences, and that it cannot be mediated or passively ‘acquired’ as a foreign investment.”
Klaus advised: “Relations with the countries of North Africa should be based on free trade. … Prosperity in the countries of North Africa is a guarantee of stability and it is also a precondition for preventing growing migration to the countries in southern and western Europe.” This remains so very true.
Hungarian President Pal Schmitt recalled his own country’s tortuous path to freedom from the Soviet sphere: “The overthrow of autocratic regimes, nevertheless is only the first step. … By our own experience, the most difficult stages of the transformation process are yet to come.”
New Arab governments will face challenges such as establishing new power structures, drafting new constitutions among others. President Schmitt offered to share Hungary’s “expansive toolkit for good governance” with the Arab states.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle presented an interesting angle. Recalling his own country’s experience with former East Germany: “Until now we have experienced globalization first and foremost as ever greater integration of the world economy. Today we see globalization means so much more. … That it has also brought about the globalization of values. …In North Africa and in the Arab world, millions of people have shaken off the shackles of decades of oppression. They want freedom, democracy and rights.”
Still it’s probably superficial to broad-brush the varied Arab Spring states. While an authoritarian streak ran through all of them, to politically compare Egypt with Libya is disingenuous as much as it is simply wrong to equate the corrupt Tunisian kleptocracy with the far more vicious and lethal Syrian rulers. Moammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya as a cultlike political regime, was hardly on a political par with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy framed the argument for the future. “To those who proclaim that the Arab-Muslim world is by nature hostile to democracy and human rights … they rose up and accepted every risk in the name of democracy and rights.”
Sarkozy implored: “We do not have the right to disappoint their hopes. We do not have the right to destroy their dreams. … For those, disappointed hopes and broken dreams would vindicate the fanatics who, working in obscurity, have not renounced their desire to set Islam against the West by stirring up hatred and violence worldwide.”
Despite the opportunities for wider freedoms, positive political outcomes are not certain. Tunisia will likely work out well. Egypt’s future hangs in the balance with the military holding power and the Muslim Brotherhood radicals waiting in the wings. Libya’s outcome offers nervous hope.
Syria’s brutal dictatorship is holding on while the diplomats dither, and the Assad family rulers await the return of political winter.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010).