February 13th, 2011


World watching

It's interesting to see what's going on in North Africa at the moment. There is a valid comparison to be made with what was happening 21 years earlier in Europe. There are certainly some significant differences, but there are also some strong similarities.

Most obviously it looks like Obama is following in Gorbachev's footsteps by subtly informing the dictators in his country's sphere of influence that his country isn't going to be there to back them up against their own people any more.

Another comparison between the two is that few countries in either set had much of a democratic tradition prior to the current instability. Most of North Africa, as with much of Eastern Europe, were dictatorships and had previously been monarchies. This doesn't mean that there isn't a good chance of democracy in these countries in the future. For example, the modern history of Hungary has certain parallels with the history of Egypt - formerly a satellite of an Empire, then an independent monarchy (or, in the case of Hungary, a semi-monarchy controlled by a Regent with no monarch to operate on behalf of), then a dictatorship. But, over the past two decades, Hungary has run a fairly stable democracy through the typical post-Communist economic strife that affected the country.

This also is an indication that the hard work in countries like Egypt and Tunisia is just beginning. Now that the dictators have been toppled, the countries have to develop a replacement political structure that isn't going to be just "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"; otherwise the "new bosses" will fail just as the "old bosses" have. The leaders of these new structures are going to have to deal with a country with widespread discontent and a need for transformation. It's certainly possible - see Eastern Europe for examples - but it's going to involve a lot of hard work and disruption.

As for the other countries in North Africa: Sudan seems to be currently dismembering itself (Darfur voted in a referendum recently, but after that I've heard little news from the country); it's anyone's guess as to what's going to happen to their central government now. Libya's got an ageing dictator of four decades' standing who's probably going to be feeling the winds of change up his kaftan fairly soon; the situation is more difficult here because he hasn't been supported by the Americans in the first place. Algeria had a brief flirtation with democracy about twenty years ago, which was ruthlessly stomped on by their Army; possibly comparable to the situation in Czechoslovakia. The situation in Morocco and Western Sahara is much more complex, and probably won't be resolved any time soon: Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, and there doesn't seem to be the sort of agitation against the government that there has been elsewhere in North Africa; but on the other hand, the country has been occupying Western Sahara for a generation, where there has been an independence movement since before the Spanish quit.

And as for the "Oh no, then the Muslims are going to take over" rhetoric being reported from some quarters? There was a bit of similar rhetoric around circa 1990 in Europe. As it turned out, there hasn't been too much in the way of religious oppression from the Christians in Europe - even in Poland, where they had some power in recent years - and it's not very likely that anything similar will happen in North Africa. The main Islamic opposition group in Egypt has been reported as not being interested in running a candidate to replace Mubarak.