1989 in Africa? A Possibility in the Making…..

Photo taken in June 2010

It first started with the winds of change- the eerie feeling that something was not right at all and that something needed to be done in order to right the wrong. It is then followed by dark clouds later combined with high winds, lightning and thunder which becomes stronger by the minute and something that you cannot avoid at all. Soon the pillars and walls that you were used to- the ones that restricted you no matter where you went- are destroyed by the winds and waves. A form of Armaggedon that rocks society and life to its foundations! After all this is done, the clouds disappear, the winds die down, and when the sun finally comes out, you see an environment that you have never seen before, yet you find it is much better than the one you were living in before.

The Fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak represented this perfect storm- 18 days’ worth to be exact- where people were asking for change and got it with this storm. 30 years of authoritarian rule marred by repression, martial law, increased poverty because of unemployment, increased food prices, and urban sprawls full of shanties with poor sanitation and lack of available clean water would be put to the test but in the way of the perfect storm as great as this one. For 18 days, the people strove for Mubarak’s removal and on this day- the day of the perfect storm- they got what they deserved. Mubarak is gone. Egypt is now under military rule and is undergoing a transitional change which in the end, when democratic elections- the first in the country’s history- take place, the country will be altered beyond recognition. Will other countries in the region follow suit?

It is not a coincidence to choose 1989 as a theme as Egypt was not the only country that went through a revolution similar to the ones we saw in Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, before the protests began, a revolution in neighboring Tunesia beginning on 17 December the previous year led to the ousting of President Zine Albine Ben Ali on 28 January. Before Mubarak was forced out, similar protests demanding changes to the political environment were occurring in Yemen, Algeria, and even Jordan, just to name a few countries. The results had been miniscule at best: the promise of reform, uplifting martial law, reducing food prices in places like Yemen, and in the case of Jordan, the sacking of the government. Nobody expected that Egypt, one of the largest and most populous countries in the region to fall under the weight of circumstances and demands. Yet nobody really expected the now former German Democratic Republic (or East Germany in the eyes of Americans) to fall and the Berlin Wall to open for all wanting to flee to the western part of the country, like it occurred on 9 November, 1989. But it did happen and it occurred suddenly and unexpectedly. Now it is just a question of what is next for the Middle East and Africa in general. Will other countries follow suit creating a domino effect that will shake the entire political and social landscape to its very core foundation and if so, how will the region look like once the revolution of 2011 is finished and over with?

Comparing this revolution with the one in 1989, one can see both the similarities and the differences. The socio-economic problems in general were definitely similar. The countries east of the borders splitting Germany into two had dealt with faltering economies, social pathologies resulting from environmental pollution and repression by the secret police and the Communist Party, and poor working conditions resulting in the creation of solidarity movements and protests demanding better working conditions. Even the availability of food was scarce as it was rationed by the governments. The difference was the fact that unlike the countries in the Middle East, the countries in Central and Eastern Europe was influenced greatly by Moscow and therefore, President Mikhail Gorbachev- realizing that the Cold War with the US was no longer winnable because the state-controlled economy was falling apart- encouraged the countries to go their own path through Glastnost and Peristroika. While there was nothing like that in the Middle East, the countries affected by the revolution were mostly nationalist and autocratic and the only cooperation they had was with the African League. So there was no influence from one person in the region, encouraging the countries in the Middle East to change its political and socio-economic infrasturcture to better serve the people, unless you have someone like US President Barack Obama echoing the famous words Gorbachev whispered into Erich Honecker’s ear during the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the German Democratic Republic “Life punishes those who wait.”  This brings up another similarity, which is the influence from the outside. While it is a foregone conclusion that today’s media is much more sophisticated than the media used to influence the revolution of 1989, the pattern is the same. You have networks originating from outside the country that is on the brink of the revolution, like al-Jazeera and CNN providing the people with information about the state of their own country courtesy of dissident groups that went underground to avoid persecution by the government resulting in the undermining of its core structure and people being encouraged to protest for change. If the government is providing its people with one source of information and the media sources with another source, then it is a foregone conclusion that the people will search for the truth in the news and will lean towards the one that is telling the truth; mainly those from the outside as the people working for these institutions sometimes risk their own lives to search for the truth. This happened in the 1980s in Central and Eastern Europe, which culminated into the events unfolding in 1989, and the magic held true in the revolutions of late 2010 up to date.

Now we come to the question of what is next… Nobody expected a domino effect to happen, but as one can read about the Revolution of 1989, history has the potential to repeat itself. No one expected Poland to have free elections, but it happened, and scholars like Timothy Garton Ash have stated time and again that it was the spark that started the fire. No one had expected the Head of the Socialist Party Erich Honecker of the German Democratic Republic to be removed, let alone the Berlin Wall to fall. But Honecker was removed right after the 40th anniversary festivities of 7th October, which was overshadowed by bloody demostrations and arrests. Egon Krenz took over and did what former US President Ronald Reagan pleaded to Gorbachev to do two years earlier “Open the gate.” Once the gate was open on 9 November, 1989, the rest of the countries behind the curtain fell one by one beginning with Czechoslovakia and ending with Albania three years later. And the reason was simple: East Germany was too strong to fall and once it did fall, there was no stopping the revolutionary train from rolling forward. And as Nicolai Ceaucescu learned the bloodiest way possible, it is really suicidal to jump in the way of train. He and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989 in Bucharest, just hours after his government was toppled despite attempts to stop it with military force.

One can say that Tunesia was the spark that started the revolution in Africa, yet other events occurred before Mubarak’s downfall that raised eyebrows of many politicians and scholars. Among the events, Sudan was split into two thanks to the elections on 30 January. However despite the protests in other countries, nobody expected Egypt to fall as it was an important ally to the US and neighboring Israel, with whom it has lived in harmony thanks to the Camp David Accords of 1978. In other words, it was too big to fail, yet it fell and now the question is what is next? Will the Revolution of 2011 run the same course as the one in 1989 where other countries will follow suit as Egypt did and if so, which country will be the next one to fall? There are more than enough candidiates that have autocratic regimes and are suffering the same socio-economic ills as Egypt has had.  The responses of the regimes have not eased the tensions. In fact they have only encouraged people to join the fray and protest for change. Name any country in the Middle East and Africa- like Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia- and you can be assured that the chemical compounds are ripe enough for an explosion to happen. Should this revolutionary train take off like it did in 1989, how long will it take until the storm is over? Which dictator will act as a foolish martyr in stopping the revolution (and failing miserably in the process)? How will it affect relations with the US, Europe (and in particular, Germany) and even Israel? Will the revolution put an end to the Clash of Civilizations as stated by the late Samuel P. Huntington or will it usher in a new era known as the End of History, as stated by Francis Fukuyama shortly after the Revolution happened in Central and Eastern Europe? The next few months and perhaps years will play a pivotal role in reshaping the landscape in the region which had been stable until recently and is now riding through the storm which will in the end change everything to a point where it will no longer be recognizable….

The author of the Flensburg Files would like to dedicate this article to the people of Egypt who fought for change and got what they wanted with the overthrow of Mubarak. Like the people in Germany, who strove for Reunification 11 months after the Berlin Wall fell (3 October, 1990 to be exact), it is now up to you to decide how you want to shape your country. After all you should do what it takes to make yourselves happy as you will do yourselves and others around you a big favor. We will be watching you as you make the events happen to your benefit and will support you whenever you need it. We stand in solidarity side by side so that you can succeed.

For the regimes that are trying to quell the protesters with promised of reform and eliminating martial law, you may want to take Mikhail Gorbechev’s comments by heart and listen to what the people want. After all, what you want may be different to what they want and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of one person.

Useful links:

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/02/11/egypt.foreign.reaction/index.html?hpt=T2

http://www.timothygartonash.com/index.php

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010-2011_Arab_world_protests#Libya

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