As protests sweep Cairo and other big cities in Egypt for a seventh day in a row, parallels with Eastern Europe circa the autumn of 1989 are aplenty. Gerontocrats facing a wave of popular discontent, plummeting living standards, unbound aspiration for a better life vs. the utter political bankruptcy of the system and, dare I say, a distant hegemon unwilling to cast its lot and prop up deluded rulers clinging to power until the bitter end. But what makes Eastern Europe particularly relevant is not so much the reminiscences of revolutionary fervour, not even the domino effect from one country to another but the pragmatism of what came next.
This is an old, old story told first by the “transitologists” writing on the momentous developments in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1970s. The key to success in a move to a democratic regime is the pact, tacit or open, between moderates amidst the opposition and in the regime itself. Same with Eastern Europe – the Communist nomenklatura had little to lose after 1989. If anything it did rather well in transforming political status into economic clout. In several years post-communist parties were back in government in Poland and Hungary, having kept power in Romania and Bulgaria.
Is this scenario possible in Egypt where elements in the ruling caste became stakeholders in the political system to come, whether democratic or, more realistically, a form of a hybrid regime? To me this is the million-dollar question. It is by no means an abstract one. The alternative to a pact is a continued polarisation, disruption of order and continued violence. Back in 2003 the US removed all Ba’ath functionaries from government and also disbanded the Iraqi army. The outcome was chaos and a civil war along sectarian lines. To be sure, Egypt is no Iraq. Yet both countries have been shaped, from the 1950s onwards, by the authoritarian modernisation, militarism and the omnipresent (though paradoxically weak when it comes to basic functions) state. Pull the plug and you end up with a dangerous vacuum. The best case scenario for Egypt, once Mubarak is gone, is a political deal between his successors in the government office buildings, army barracks and the likes of Mohammed ElBaradei who have come to represent the millions Egyptians on the march for democracy.
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