"The Berlin Wall Has Fallen in the Arab World."
Yes and no. It's tempting to compare the astonishing wave of political upheaval in the Arab world to the equally dramatic wave of political change that swept Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. In the Middle East today, as in 1989, extraordinary numbers of ordinary people are courageously and for the most part nonviolently demanding a better future for themselves and their children. The wave broke just as suddenly and was almost entirely unpredicted by experts both inside and outside the region. And the process of cross-country contagion -- the political sparks jumping across borders almost instantaneously -- has also been strikingly reminiscent of Central and Eastern Europe in that fateful year.
Yet the 1989 analogy is misleading in at least two major ways. First, the communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe had been imposed from the outside and maintained in place by the Soviet Union's guarantee -- the very real threat of tanks arriving to put down any serious insurrection. When Soviet power began to crumble in the late 1980s, this guarantee turned paper thin and the regimes were suddenly deeply vulnerable to any hard push from inside.
The situation in the Arab world is very different. For all you hear about America's support for dictators, the Arab autocracies were, or are not, held in place by any external power framework. Rather, they survived these many decades largely by their own means -- in some cases thanks to a certain amount of monarchical legitimacy well watered with oil and in all cases by the heavy hand of deeply entrenched national military and police forces. True, the United States has supplied military and economic assistance in generous quantities to some of the governments and did save Kuwait's ruling Sabah family from Iraqi takeover in 1991. Generally, however, the U.S. role is far less invasive than that of the Soviets in Central and Eastern Europe -- just ask American diplomats if they feel like Saudi Arabia's independent-minded King Abdullah is a U.S. puppet.
What's more, though citizens in some Arab countries have given their governments a hard push, the underlying regimes themselves -- the interlocking systems of political patronage, security forces, and raw physical coercion that political scientists call the "deep state" -- are not giving up the ghost but are hunkering down and trying to hold on. Shedding presidents, as in Tunisia and Egypt, is a startling and significant development, but only partial regime collapse. The entrenched security establishments in those countries are bargaining with the forces of popular discontent, trying to hold on to at least some parts of their privileged role. If the protesters are able to stay mobilized and focus their demands, they may be able to force a step-by-step dismantling of the old order. Elsewhere in the region however, the changes so far are less fundamental.
Second, Middle East regimes are much more diverse than was the case in Central and Eastern Europe. The Arab world contains reformist monarchs, conservative monarchs, autocratic presidents, tribal states, failing states, oil-rich states, and water-poor states -- none of which much resemble the sagging bureaucratic communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Thus, even if the transition process in one or two Arab states does end up bearing some resemblance to what occurred in Central and Eastern Europe, what takes place elsewhere in the region is likely to differ from it fundamentally. Anyone trying to predict the political future of Libya or Yemen, for example, will not get very far by drawing comparisons to the Poland or Hungary of 20 years ago.