“Mr. Obama dined with more than a dozen Central and Eastern European leaders to hear their thoughts on their economies’ transition from communism two decades ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. ‘We have taken great inspiration from the blossoming of freedom and economic growth in this region,’ Mr. Obama said…Comparisons of the Arab Spring to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the then G-7’s response filled the halls of the two-day summit, said Michael Froman, deputy national adviser for international economic affairs.” Carol E. Lee, ‘In Eastern Europe, Obama Sees Communism’s Fall Echoed in the Middle East’, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2011
If President Obama truly believes that the Arab Spring is a facsimile of the freeing of Eastern Europe from Soviet Rule, then he is more delusional than I have come to believe. Let me identify the enormous differences between the two impulses.
First, the majority of Eastern Europeans had never swallowed the communist religion of the Soviet Union. They tolerated what they could not overthrow, spitting in the gutter whenever uncivilized Soviet jackboots patrolled their precious streets. For the populations of Eastern Europe had experienced better times, had indulged themselves for the most part in the blessings of Western civilization before a new Dark Age was imposed upon them. Their conquerors were their uncivilized inferiors.
By contrast, a majority of the Arabs caught up in the Arab Spring still relish Islamic fundamentalism, the religious cult that has retarded their economic development over the past millenium. Surely there are enlightened Muslims, who ignore the ban on interest and pay only token lip-service to the Supreme Authority identified by an illiterate Prophet. But they will find themselves swamped out by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism once the secular dictators are removed from power. President Obama should be looking at 1970s Iran, not 199os Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia for indications of where too much of the Arab Spring eventually will flow.
Second, Eastern Europe, for the most part, was relatively well-educated in 1990. The USSR had no interest in keeping its female captives illiterate, covering their minds as well as their heads from the real world. Illiteracy across Arabia and North Africa is significantly greater, especially among the female population. If Iran is an example, the Arab Spring will force Arabian women back into medieval servitude as it imprisons secular men in an impermeable web of religious bigotry.
Third, most Eastern Europeans had some history of democracy, some experience with the institutions of relatively free societies. The Middle East, with the exception of Israel, has no such experience. Democratic institutions will not emerge fully grown out of the desert sand. They may take perhaps centuries to evolve.
Fourth, Eastern Europeans had a real incentive to allow the institutions of a free society to evolve. Only by that route would they be able to secure the economic benefits of E.U. membership. There will be no such incentive available to Middle Eastern and North African countries as they attempt to shake off the shackles of autocracy. I hear no murmurs within the EU of extending membership to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, or Iraq. E.U. foot-dragging over Turkey is a clear enough signal that there are are no low-hanging European fruits available for those who engage in the Arab Spring.
This is not to say that the Arab Spring necessarily will choke on its own desert sand, that autocracy will follow autocracy in an unending process. It rather suggests that President Obama and the E.U. should stand back and allow the Arab Spring to run its own course, without Western meddling. For those Arab Springs that turn into glorious summer, trade opportunities with the West should be forthcoming, and helping hands should be extended. For those that fail, hard-earned lessons should be allowed to accumulate in the hope, if not the expectation, that an Arab Renaissance eventually will sweep away irrational religious impediments to their human flourishing.