Egypt “celebrated” the second anniversary of its revolution last week with riots, tear gas and angry demonstrations against an increasingly authoritarian regime. A few days earlier, the Tunisian army deployed to the southern part of that country to fight demonstrators who were demanding, on the second anniversary of their own revolution, to know why their lives had not improved. In anticipation of the Libyan revolution’s anniversary on Feb. 17, authorities are calling for vigilance and high-security measures. Lufthansa has suspended its flights to Tripoli.
Much has changed in North Africa since the winter of 2011. But a lot more has not. To understand this, it’s worth looking at other countries that have undergone similarly radical changes. In post-communist Europe, for example, countries that faced similar problems took very different paths after they elected democratic governments in 1990. Yet some fell into economic stagnation or political turmoil while others thrived.
Neither politics nor economics alone explains the differences. On the contrary, the factor most closely linked to the arrival of stability and growth is human: Those countries that had an “alternative elite” — a cadre of people who had worked together in the past, who had thought about government and who were at some level prepared to take it over — were far more likely both to carry out radical reforms and to persuade the population to accept them. Hungary, Poland — and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states — all benefited from the presence of people who had been thinking about change, and organizing to carry it out, for a long time. The Polish opposition had created the Solidarity trade union in the early 1980s. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel had been advocating and promoting democratic values since the 1970s. Hungarian and Polish economists had spent a decade discussing how it might be possible to decentralize a centrally planned economy.
Elsewhere, opposition groups had not been so unified or repression had been harsher. So when the Soviet Union disbanded, former communists — perhaps dressed up as social democrats or nationalists — took charge again. Some were better, some were worse. On the whole they did not press for radical change — because radical change was not in their interests.
As the Arab Spring nations mark their second anniversaries, it’s worth keeping this precedent in mind. True, there were dissenters of many kinds in pre-revolutionary Egypt, as one expert told Foreign Policy this week. But “they were largely suppressed, except for the mosque and the soccer pitch. With these two institutions, the numbers were too big and the emotions they evoked were too strong.” The result: The Muslim Brotherhood was the only political “party” with any organizational capacity after 2011. And Egyptian soccer clubs are the only organizations that can reliably be counted on to create major protests, as they have recently. Another alternative elite was not available.
Nor is there a North African equivalent to those Polish and Hungarian economists who were waiting in the wings with plans to fix things once they got the chance. The Muslim Brotherhood arrived in power with no clear ideas about Egypt’s economy. In Libya, where the economy had been largely organized for the personal benefit of the Gaddafi family, a new leadership — drawn from the exile community and the leaders of the armed revolution — is starting to analyze and understand the country largely from scratch. In Tunisia, where both the Islamic party, Ennahda, and liberal democrats were heavily repressed in the past, the friends and relatives of the old ruling family are still thought to pull most of the economic strings. Radical change is not in their interests.
It’s not easy to draw policy conclusions from these observations. After all, the time to help create an alternative was three, five or, better yet, 10 years ago. But even then, an authentic alternative elite couldn’t have been wholly created on the outside, by exiles or by foreigners: If opposition leaders aren’t the product of an indigenous impulse to create alternative institutions — political parties, charities, newspapers, human rights organizations — then they won’t have the political clout to push through radical reforms when they get the chance. Yet in many Arab states, the opportunity to start doing so arrived only in 2011, and the alternative elite is forming only now.
Be careful of those who say, in the coming weeks, that the Arab revolutions are over: Maybe they’re just beginning.