Why we do comparative politics…

…or, what Europe can teach us about the rest of the world (no, really!).

One year since the Egyptian Revolution, the protests continue.  In most recent news, we see deadly clashes between protestors and the police triggered in part by the recent football riots (Deadly clashes in Egypt…).  At the time of the initial Egyptian uprising, you saw a fair amount of pundits, politicians, and journalists engaging in some basic comparative politics.  Roger Cohen at the New York Times asked whether we were seeing Tehran 1979 or Berlin 1989.  Yuliya Tymoshenko (now in jail in her own country) compared Egypt to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-05, giving a cautious warning about the dangers that emerge as the euphoria of a revolution gives way to the reality of restructuring a democratic government.

To these comparisons, I will add another country to consider: Poland 1981.  I originally thought of this comparison back in spring of last year, but I didn’t have a blog then, so I’ll write my thoughts on this now.

To explain why I think Poland is a good case to compare with Egypt, I’ll cover a very brief history and offer some suggested readings.  A number of great books have been written on Poland’s transition to democracy, such as Raymond Taras’ Consolidating Democracy in Poland and one my favorite books on the subject, Jan Kubik’s The Power of Symbols Against the Symbols of Power.  Poland’s democratic transition does not begin in 1989, but over 10 years earlier with the emergence of Solidarity in the worker protests of the late 1970s.  Solidarity had some significant successes in 1980, and they were able to force government concessions on some reforms, including the right for workers to form independent trade unions.  However, 1981 saw a military crackdown by the Polish government (in response to Soviet pressure), and Solidarity as a mass movement was effectively suppressed.  At least, temporarily…

If Poland 1981 is the comparison, what is the lesson for Egypt (and perhaps, for Ukraine post-Orange Revolution)?  Even with the crackdown, Poland’s post-1981 military government was never able to effectively quell the democratic opposition, and they would be plagued by instability for the remainder of the decade.  Poland’s pro-democratic forces built up their political capital and made connections to other groups in Polish society, like the Catholic Church.  As a result of this careful planning, an effective opposition was ultimately able to successfully launch Poland’s democratic transition.  Hence, Poland 1981 gave us Eastern Europe in 1989, a series of events that still lives on in the global memory as a time that demonstrated how people movements could effectively – and peacefully – bring down even the most repressive governments.

So, while Egypt may be experiencing some difficult times, the pro-democratic elements of Egyptian society should use this chance to build up their political resources and expand on the initial tactics of such groups as the April 6th Movement and others (though, tip for online activists: twittering about politics isn’t enough to actually change things).  If they can do this – and this is a big if! – we may be able to look forward to a democratic Egypt in the years to come.


And just because I can’t end on too much of an idealistic note (I am a political scientist, after all, and we are notoriously cynical)…Syria seems to be going into a direction that also brings back memories of Eastern European history, with Russia once more cast in the role of the villain.

And for those of you who do not know your European history, that would be Warsaw Pact tanks brutally crushing the 1968 Prague Spring.


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