Cairo and the Berlin Wall

Donald Blinken (Ambassador to Hungary, 1994-1998)

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Since my February 2nd commentary, contrasting the events in Egypt with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have more recently witnessed the uprising in Libya and regime threatening instability in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. These events underscore the point I made on February 2nd: North African and Middle Eastern countries have failed to produce leaders with the moral and political stature that contributed so greatly to the peaceful and successful transition of former Warsaw Pact regimes to democratic and open societies. So the outcomes in these Middle Eastern and North African nations remain uncertain.

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America’s reaction to regime change in Egypt brings back memories of the last days of the Cold War. There are obvious similarities. In each case the United States welcomed the popular uprisings—in the case of Egypt tentatively and cautiously, while the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-two years ago was greeted by the U.S. with enthusiasm. The differing U.S. reaction to these two earthshaking events reflects the fact that Egyptian internal discontent is the result of 30 years of autocratic Mubarak rule. Externally, Egypt was a reliable ally in an unstable, but economically and politically important region. The peoples of Central and Eastern European nations, on the other hand, suffered more than 40 years of external repression, enforced by raw Soviet military power.

Whereas we have, until now, uneasily embraced the Mubarak regime, the United States and its allies were always totally opposed to Iron Curtain Soviet domination. NATO was created to prevent further Soviet expansion into Western Europe. So, for more than 40 years, American policy was aimed at weakening Soviet control. Unfortunately, as the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising demonstrated, it was not possible for the U.S. to rid Central and Eastern Europe of Soviet domination, short of all-out war. American frustration over the 1956 Hungarian uprising remains, to this day, a sad chapter in our post-war foreign policy.

With the surprise opening of the border between Hungary and Austria in 1989, Soviet Prime Minister Gorbachev recognized that short of employing overwhelming force, the formerly independent nations could no longer be held captive. Like a fall of dominos, Soviet forces disappeared almost overnight. With the exception of Romania, the transformation was peaceful; there was no shortage of world class leaders like Walesa in Poland, Havel in the Czech Republic, Goncz in Hungary, and Masur in East Germany to lead and dignify democratic revolts. And, of course, John Paul II was a major source of moral support for the aspirations of freedom seeking Central and Eastern Europeans. Nelson Mandela, is his years of opposition to South African apartheid, also symbolized the essential importance of a strong and identifiable figure to inspire opposition to state-wide oppression.

The U.S. response to the popular uprising in Egypt, on the other hand, has been cautious and nuanced. We know Mubarak, but we have no clear idea of what will follow him. Our reliance on Egypt’s military leadership has proved beneficial to U.S. interests, but it remains to be seen whether Egypt’s generals can generate strong domestic popular support. Twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the outcomes are clear and positive. Former Soviet satellites are members of NATO and the EU; they have embraced democracy, capitalism, and human rights. But we don’t yet know the outcome in Egypt. We can only hope that Mubarak’s successors have the stature to strike out in new directions, democratically, peacefully, and responsibly.

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