History does not enable us to predict the future, but it does help us to prepare for it. It therefore makes sense that commentators are searching for historical precedents to the dramatic events in Egypt. History might help shed light on where the potentially revolutionary developments are heading.
It is important to get the history right, however. Some commentators have suggested that the world might be witnessing a repetition of the events of 1979, when an Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran. Others suggest that a more apt Iranian comparison would be 2009, when the Green Revolution failed in its own attempts at overthrowing the current Iranian regime. Still others have posited that what Egypt and other countries in the Middle East are having is a 1989 moment. Could Egypt be experiencing the same kind of swift overthrow of a decades‐long political order that happened in Europe?
There are indeed a number of similarities between today’s events and the astonishing year of 1989. But there are also significant differences—differences that suggest we should not be too quick to compare today’s events in Egypt to the fall of the communist bloc.
One key similarity between 2011 and 1989 is the swiftness of developments. As a number of participants in the events of 1989 noted at the time, life simply speeded up. The current U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was actively involved in the process of unifying Europe in 1989‐90 as a senior National Security Council official. His description for how it felt? “We shot the rapids of history, and without a life jacket.” And J. D. Bindenagel, an American diplomat, remembered his experience working in the U.S. embassy in East Berlin in 1989‐90 as the feeling of living in a video on which someone had pressed the fast‐forward button. The same breathtaking rapidity of change is a hallmark of the current situation in Egypt, and one that makes it very difficult for policymakers to gain time to think.
Another similarity is the significance of popular media. In 2011, it is Facebook and Twitter that the Egyptian regime fears and attempts to stifle. In 1989, it was Western TV and radio broadcasts. These could be received in Eastern Europe, particularly in East Germany. Although frowned upon by their ruling regime, millions of East Germans could easily watch and listen to West German television and radio channels. These Western broadcasts gave East Germans information about the nature and extent of protest in their own country. Particularly significant was television footage of massive protest marches in the town of Leipzig.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Western media caused the opening of the Berlin Wall—although unintentionally. When a bumbling East German press spokesman held a confusing press conference on November 9, 1989, journalists reported that the press conference had announced the opening of the wall, even though it had not. As a result of hearing the Western broadcasts, East Germans rushed to the wall in large numbers. They overwhelmed the border guards by their sheer mass and determination. The guards realized quickly that they had only two options: open fire or open the wall. They decided on the latter, thereby turning the media reports into reality.
In 2011, the intentional use of Facebook and Twitter for the organization of protests showed their potential as revolutionary tools. These and other organizations enabled Egyptians to pull together a large‐scale protest on January 25. As this day was the national Egyptian holiday in honor of the police, there would have been protests against police brutality in any case. But the existence of social media allowed organizers to capitalize on the momentum created by the peaceful overthrow of the Tunisian leadership and bring even larger crowds on to the street.
This development leads to yet another similarity: the risks of a dictatorial regime holding a self‐congratulatory event in a time of crisis, even a long‐planned one. The police holiday of January 2011 became a rallying point for Egyptians tired of brutal repression and inspired by the events in Tunisia. Similarly, the East German regime decided to go ahead with a parade in honor of itself on the fortieth anniversary of its founding in October 1989. The occasion demanded that the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, appear. But his appearance added fuel to the flame of protest in East Germany, when crowds began chanting “Gorbi! Gorbi help us!”
Despite these similarities, however, the differences between Central Europe in 1989 and Egypt in 2011 are more significant. Obviously, there are a number of long‐term discrepancies. It is apparent that the regions are dissimilar in broad ways: their demographics, history, geography, and religion. But there are also more specific differences that are relevant.
First, there is no Arab equivalent to Gorbachev, on a number of levels. Gorbachev was the leader not just of the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union but also of the Warsaw Pact military bloc in Eastern Europe. The socialist states to the east of the Iron Curtain were both politically and militarily subservient to Moscow. Hence, when Gorbachev came to power and made clear that he favored glasnost and perestroika, meaning openness, reform, and nonviolence, reformers cheered and hard-liners trembled. The message from the center was not what dictatorial regimes wanted to hear, because it made public the fact that Moscow would not use force to quash European protests as it had done in 1953, 1956, and 1968, to name a few examples.
Since the Middle East does not exist in a hierarchical structure similar to the Warsaw Pact, there is no central figure with such wide‐ranging authority in the entire region. While Mohammed ElBaradei is indeed a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, like Gorbachev, he does not have the institutional position that Gorbachev had. And his Nobel is for his work abroad in nuclear non‐proliferation, not for his role in the region.
Another difference is that there is no West Egypt. In 1989, West Germany played a crucial role in shaping events. It provided a safe haven to those who managed to get over the border before it opened, and financial support for the transition after the wall came down. Despite the bloody history of Germany’s wars on European soil, by 1989, it had become a trusted democracy. Not just East Germans but also Polish, Hungarian, and other Central European leaders knew that they could call on their West German neighbor for advice and funding, and could therefore demand change with the knowledge that a kind of safety net existed. No equivalent safety net exists for Egyptians.
It wasn’t just West Germany that provided a safety net, though. NATO, dominated by the United States, together with the European Community served as clear models for what the future could hold for Central and East Europeans if they could rid themselves of their nondemocratic leaders. In other words, there existed prefabricated institutions that East Europeans could adopt. The existence of such institutions meant that a certain way forward—one dominated by the West—was apparent.
No such prefabrication exists for Egyptians. It is not at all clear that a Western-dominated future is what they are seeking. As tempting as it may be to call the events in Egypt a kind of 1989 moment, the differences between then and now suggest caution.
Mary Elise Sarotte is a professor at the University of Southern California and the author, most recently, of 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.