Sometimes conventional wisdom is right. The Arab Spring really is the most important political event since the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. So it makes sense to find out what Eastern Europeans make of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and to ask what they think it will take to transform the promise of these rebellions into a lasting political transformation.
A good place to look for those answers this week was Budapest, where Central European University, one of the intellectual centres of the region's political and economic transition, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
The scholars and activists gathered spent a lot of time debating the lessons of their revolution for the Arab Spring. Here are four of them:
The first was that selling democracy has become harder now than it was 20 years ago. That's because, as Aryeh Neier, a human rights activist and head of the Open Society Foundations, explained, the equation of prosperity and democracy, which was universally acknowledged in 1989 and the period that followed, has broken down today.
"In 1989, the U.S. had succeeded in conveying the view that economic prosperity and political freedom go hand in hand," Mr. Neier said. "That is by no means so certain today. The rise of China and the difficulty the West continues to have in recovering from the financial crisis have broken the link between prosperity and freedom."
A second big idea was that while technology has probably made it easier to rebel against authoritarian governments, it has also made it tougher to build enduring, deeply rooted democratic polities to replace them.
Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, one of the world's leading thinkers about democracy and authoritarianism, argued that the communication revolution has created a "fragmentation of the public space." Instead of all of us being part of a single public debate, the Internet and social media have allowed us all to consume only "the information that confirms our biases."
The third big idea was a historical one. Wanda Rapaczynski, one of the leading creators of Poland's vibrant free press, identified a critical external force in her explanation of what made the revolutions in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic succeed: Europe and the promise of membership in the European Union.
"How did we get so lucky?" she asked. "The most important role was played by our aspiration to join NATO and the EU. We had to carry out reforms in accordance with EU guidelines and deadlines. We made tremendous progress."
The fourth lesson came from the founder and chief benefactor of Central European University, George Soros. Mr. Soros, who fled Budapest as a teenager and made his fortune in the United States, suggested that his homeland's history offers an example for the Arab revolutions that is both cruelly realistic and ultimately inspiring. "Reflecting on the Arab revolutions, one very important factor is that people were willing to sacrifice their lives for a common cause," he said. "That is a memory, a historic event, that will change those countries forever. It is irreversible."
But here is the dark cloud to that silver lining: "Revolutions are rarely successful," he noted. "They often end in tragedy. But they change the behaviour of that country afterwards. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution was repressed. But it carried with it the seeds of the successful revolution in 1989."
At a time when many of us in the West - and on the Arab street - are looking for instant results, Mr. Soros's conclusion is both heartening and frightening. Sometimes, as with Hungary's 1956 uprising, a successful rebellion can take many decades to work.
That long view may be one of the greatest gifts Central Europe has to offer Egypt, Tunisia and their neighbours. Soon, we will start to write the obituaries of the Arab Spring. We will begin to talk about how the promise of Tahrir Square has been squandered by the chaotic and corrupt governments that the brave people on the street propelled into office. But, as with 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Prague and 1980 in Gdansk, revolutions can be successful even if it takes decades for their promise to flower.
Listening to these friends and patrons of Central Europe's successful revolutions prompted one big question: Where is the EU and where is the George Soros for the Middle East and North Africa? The EU could help by admitting Turkey, not a participant in the Arab Spring, but an essential example for the Muslim world.
As for Mr. Soros, it is probably asking too much to expect him to be the patron saint of the Arab Spring, as he was for the revolutions of 1989. But the Arab world, too, has its democracy-loving billionaires. It is time for them to step up to the plate.
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