A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pundit Like it's 1989

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

— Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Acr IV, Scene 3

I wanted to reflect for a moment about the dilemma facing all of us Middle East "experts," pundits, and talking heads. I wish I had phone numbers of some of the history grad students I knew who were specialists on Russian and Eastern European history. (We tended to meet in Byzantine Empire history classes. I actually took four semesters of Byzantine history, two taught by Georgian Prince Cyril Toumanoff, about whom I must write someday.) As I try to field questions from the media and formulate my own thinking on what's going on now, I keep realizing that everything I've learned from experience in the past 40 years may no longer be valid. There is a dynamic here that has never existed before. I don't understand the dynamic. Ben Ali and Mubarak clearly don't. Maybe King ‘Abdullah II has a clue, since he's trying to stay in front of the tsunami (or the "Tunisnami" as someone has dubbed it).

Although the Solidarity Movement in Poland had led the way, the collapse of Eastern Europe and, soon after, the Soviet Union itself, stunned observers, the governments themselves, and no doubt the protesters. It was not the state but the Communist Monolith that withered away, or simply evaporated. The fall of the Berlin Wall, some say, was inadvertent. The East German Government issued a contingency statement the Politburo had not authorized. (The most dramatic bureaucratic screwup in history?) Not just a wall but an Iron Curtain fell. And,for the most part, it was bloodless, unless your name was Ceausescu. (Mubarak's "I will die in Egypt": be careful what you wish for.)

1989 was forecast by no one. It was impossible, unprecedented, a psychedelic fantasy. The results were imperfect (Belarus and some of the "stans" and the Caucasus). But all the existing analytic paradigms collapsed overnight. The dynamic was changed. People were empowered.

Pundits at the time raised the question of why it didn't spread to the Arab World.

Tunisia was an outlier, a solid little Arab country but very much its own case. Egypt is the beating heart of Arab nationalism, birthplace of civilization, mother of the world. Tunisia was Poland; if it happens, Egypt is the fall of the Berlin Wall at a minimum. It's the mother lode.

Outside of my post on the 1919 Revolution/uprising, the fall of the Shah of Iran is perhaps the best analog. A man seemingly secure fell quickly, though not so quickly as what is happening now. Obviously whether we decide this is a "Facebook revolution" or something quite different, there are going to be elements of it that are entirely new.

As for exportability, revolutions can occur without communication among revolutionary groups, as the success of one spreads to another country. There is something exhilarating about real revolution (think of Wordsworth's "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven"). The American Revolution had a direct and organic effect on France in 1789. The wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 is another example, as is the spread of the Russian Revolution of 1917 to many places, including Germany a bit, in 1918-1919. The domino collapse of Communism is perhaps the most apt, and clearly most recent, example.

What happens next? Don't ask us Middle East experts. We've never seen anything like this. The dynamic is new, and different, and not a reliable guide because we don't understand it yet. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive.

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