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Egyptian anti-government protesters chant slogans as they stand atop an Egyptian army tank during a protest in Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)
Egyptian anti-government protesters chant slogans as they stand atop an Egyptian army tank during a protest in Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)

Doug Saunders

Are Arab states going to collapse like Eastern European dictatorships in '89? Add to ...

The giddy crowds in the streets, suddenly multiplying from hundreds into thousand, ignoring curfews. The sudden sense that the iron regime is tissue-thin. The tank-mounted soldiers wavering between support for the government and the protesters. It feels, in so many ways, like 1989.

But are the Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa about to experience what Central and Eastern Europe did in those heated months of '89 - a fast-escalating domino-fall cascade of regimes and leaders who found themselves stripped of all legitimacy in the face of crowds of indignant citizens?

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Or could it, for most Arabs, end up like China's experience of 1989, where a moment of rebellion was met with vicious and total repression? Or will it be one of those years, like 1848 or 1968 in Europe, where mass, region-wide uprisings spur social and political changes without toppling many governments?

Middle Easterners who experienced the democratic revolutions of 1989 say they're finding the resemblance to this week's events on the streets of Cairo uncanny. "I covered those [1989 protests]and see so many parallels," said Alma Kadragic, an Abu Dhabi-based journalist, "except that it's much faster now due to Twitter and Facebook."

But history does not repeat itself, the Warsaw Pact states of the late Soviet era are not the same as the two dozen Arab states of 2011, and it is not at all clear that the Arab revolutions, even if successful, will have similar outcomes.

Those who have worked closely with the grassroots movements of the Arab world say that there are striking similarities to the democracy movements of 1989 in the views and organizations of the ordinary people in the street. The difference lies in the regimes, which are neither as homogeneous nor as universally weak as those twilight communist states.

Asef Bayat, a sociologist who documented the grassroots, street-level uprisings of Egypt and Syria in his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, said that the crowds forming in Arab capitals this month are strikingly similar to the tiny movements that suddenly snowballed into nationwide uprisings in 1989 - and are far more robust in the Arab world than is usually acknowledged.

"You have a very large group who I'd call the middle-class poor - they have Internet and Facebook and so on, but they don't have any opportunities or any quality of life under these regimes and their economies, and aren't getting any benefit. These people aren't political, but a lot of them all at once thought, 'If the Tunisians can get rid of their dictator so easily, why can't I?' "

While Arabic citizens are often characterized in the Western media as submissive and placated, there has been a history of spontaneous grassroots movements in recent years. The most visible effects of these uprisings were the Palestinian Intifada of 1987-93 and the Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" that expelled Syrian puppet rulers in 2005, there have been dozens of less-documented uprisings that have indicated the volatility and irreverence of the Arab public.

But the difference, Dr. Bayat said, lies in the regimes: While the popular movements have similar causes and spontaneous tactics, they are facing a wildly different group of Arab leaders united only by their authoritarianism.

"Eastern Europe was a bloc that was very much dependent upon the Soviet Union, which suddenly became open." Dr. Bayat said. "But this is not so much the case in the Middle East - you have states that are dependent upon the West, but not to the extent that the Eastern European countries depended upon the Soviet Union; and you have some countries that do not at all depend upon the West, like Syria and Libya."

The two dozen Arab regimes range from pure monarchies with near-totalitarian controls such as Saudi Arabia, to self-described socialist states such as Libya and Syria to places such as Algeria and Lebanon, where more or less authoritarian regimes manipulate a nearly liberal state. Some, such as Tunisia and Libya, are largely secular, whereas the Persian Gulf states tend towards religious law.

So it is not always clear how strong a hold the regimes have on their power, or what sort of a replacement would be popular with the public, although a high degree of literacy and near-total use of cellphones and internet mean that Arab publics are becoming more similar in their aspirations.

The other key difference may lie with the militaries. Mass uprisings do not usually turn into full-scale revolutions until the soldiers begin supporting the protesters rather than fighting them. In Tunisia, this happened very quickly.

Egypt has the largest military in Africa, with more than 450,000 troops, but their pay is low and they have historically seen themselves as defenders of the people. In many Arab states, the soldiers are drawn from the same communities as the young citizens who are protesting - a solidarity that led to the collapse of Europe's dictatorships in '89, and this time could determine the difference between liberation and violent crushing.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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