LONDON — Tunisia. Egypt. Yemen. The astounding pro-democracy domino effect in the Arab world evokes the shock waves of 1989 that toppled communism in eastern Europe and eventually brought down the Soviet Union.
Two figures who helped shape the Soviet collapse — former Czech president Vaclav Havel and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze — are watching the Arab drama with excitement and nostalgia, but warn Cairo 2011 may not be Berlin 1989.
They fret about possible military takeovers or religious extremists hijacking the revolutions, and whether they’re churning forward too slowly, or too fast.
Havel told The Associated Press that the protests are at a dangerous crossroads, the outcome impossible to predict, and warned that just because the revolts in Eastern Europe brought about meaningful democratic change doesn’t mean the same will happen in Egypt and its neighbours.
“I have to point out that the situation in the Arab countries is quite different — mentality, culture, political culture, and attitude to the world,” he said.
Havel said he learned during the popular rebellions in Eastern Europe that mass demonstrations against entrenched rulers need to succeed quickly or they risk degenerating into thuggishness — as has happened in Cairo as pro-government agitators moved against forces demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
If the uprisings in eastern Europe had taken a month instead of just a week, he said, the results might have been different — and far worse.
“Time is a crucial element,” he said. “The longer it takes the bigger the danger of a far worse dictatorship than Mubarak’s.”
He cautioned that the military could seize power if the stalemate continues and said the best solution is for Mubarak to step down right away rather than try to serve the rest of his term, which ends in September.
Mubarak has said he will not run again, but President Barack Obama and other western leaders are urging him to leave now to avoid further bloodshed and allow landmark democratic reforms to get underway.
However, Havel held out some hope for a democratic breakthrough.
“It’s an interesting process and if it results in some sort of democracy, a system that will respect human rights, that won’t rig elections, and so on, then it would of course be an immensely positive development.”
Shevardnadze, who helped open the Soviet system under Mikhail Gorbachev, warned against rushing Mubarak to the exit. He said western officials should allow the Egyptian president, who has been a steadfast ally in a troubled region, to serve the remaining months of his term.
“I don’t understand the leaders who strongly insist on Mubarak’s resignation,” he said. “Just recently they were friends with him and co-operated with him. When they had problems they asked Mubarak for advice and listened to him.”
He said Mubarak served as an important point of contact between Israel and other Arab countries hostile to the Jewish state, having valuable influence on both sides.
He, too, cautioned against making too much of parallels between the revolutions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
“It’s not exactly the same thing,” he told The Associated Press.
“However, the destruction of any system has some general patterns, so the current developments in the Arab world look similar.”
At a security conference this weekend in Munich, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who was raised in East Germany and entered politics as communism crumbled in 1989 — said the Middle East protests bring back strong memories of the uprisings that brought democracy to Eastern Europe.
“We are seeing pictures awaken memories of what we experienced,” she said.
“People who are shaking off their fear.”
She said it was necessary for western leaders to back the Egyptian pro-democracy movement to help spread universal rights, including freedom of opinion and freedom of the press.
Others who played important roles during the communist breakdown believe the Middle East uprisings are less deeply rooted than those that challenged a string of Soviet bloc dictators.
James Collins, who was acting U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during the upheaval, said the Middle East protests have more in common with the revolutions in the Philippines, Iran and Indonesia.
“What happened in Tunisia and is happening in Egypt are nowhere near as fundamental,” he said.
“These have been uprisings against a sclerotic and out of touch leadership. In Eastern Europe the change was much deeper, systemic. It touched the roots of the economy and the way society operated.”
While former political leaders have mixed feelings about parallels, some analysts believe the comparison between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East today is useful.
“I hear it coming out of the region,” said Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Oxford and author of “The Arabs: A History.”
“The Tunisians talked about their movement being similar to what happened in the Gdansk shipyard with Solidarity. They see this as a starting point for changing the Arab world.”
“The Poles showed the rest of the region that demonstrations and strikes could challenge the state’s ability to repress basic rights, like freedom of speech and free assembly, the same lesson the Tunisians hoped to teach other Arab nations,” Rogan said.