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Analysis & Opinion
11.02.11 The Color Of Egypt’s Revolution
By Andrew Roth

As popular uprisings continue in Tunisia and Egypt, politicians and analysts have become sentimental, dredging up memories of the Color Revolutions and attempting to cull predictions from a decade’s experience of unrest spanning from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. Democratic backsliding and other setbacks in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia have underlined the difficulties of creating successful, sustained revolutions, and more recent uprisings in Moldova and Belarus have been non-starters. Though democracy is on the march in the Arab world, it has stalled in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

In an Op-ed published on February 7 in The Moscow Times, former Prime Minister of Ukraine and losing candidate in the 2010 presidential elections Yulia Tymoshenko warned Tunisian and Egyptian dissidents of the long road that follows a successful revolution. “As someone who led a peaceful revolution, I hope that pride is tempered by pragmatism because a change of regime is only the first step in establishing a democracy backed by the rule of law. Indeed as Ukraine is now demonstrating, after revolutionary euphoria fades and normality returns, democratic revolutions can be betrayed and reversed.”

Tymoshenko’s fall from grace coincided with the fantastic implosion of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in a storm of infighting, scandal and stagnation. Now under investigation for corruption, she has found herself on the outside of Ukrainian politics looking in, after Ukraine elected her conservative rival Viktor Yanukovich in 2010. Meanwhile, last year’s revolution in Kyrgyzstan has exposed the country’s deep ethnic tensions and instability, and Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime in Georgia has been undermined by the consequences of the war with Russia in 2008. If the first half of the decade showed the ascendancy of democracy in the former Soviet Union, then the second half has proved just how quickly these gains could unravel.

This is part of the natural life cycle of revolutions, said Georgiy Mirskiy, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. “If you’re talking about exhaustion, of course, this is the rule of every revolution. After a very short period, the people who created the revolution and supported it get disappointed.”

Authoritarian regimes, too, have worked hard to learn to avoid the mistakes of their deposed peers and have become more successful at combating civil unrest. Especially in Russia, said Pavel Baev, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a young Vladimir Putin showed himself capable of tackling the steep learning curve that emerged with the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. “Putin showed in the face of the color revolution quite a remarkable ability to learn and take countermeasures, but then you could see at that moment he was still rather new in the job. This ability to learn in leaders appears to decline with time, and the longer you stay in that position as an absolute ruler, the less is your ability to learn new information – what’s being supplied is not what you need to know.”

The authorities in Egypt have made similar moves to keep up with the pace of modern revolutions – with limited success. The attempt to limit the organizing capabilities of the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook through a nationwide Internet blackout was quickly flouted and did little to dissuade the protestors in Tahrir Square in Cairo. But a regime’s advanced age and brittleness may not be enough; even ludicrously out of touch despots in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, such as Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, have tenaciously held on to power since the fall of the Soviet Union despite the new tools available to dissidents.

The parallels between the Egyptian revolution and its predecessors, though, are limited, said Georgiy Mirskiy. Where the trigger for popular opposition has usually been disgust with fraudulent elections, the revolts in Egypt and Tunisian have been set off by deeper discontent. The unrest in Egypt and Tunisia has not only been an expression against corrupt regimes, but against entire systems of governance that are far more coercive.

“Unlike Georgia and Ukraine there was neither freedom nor democracy in both Tunisia and Egypt,” said Mirskiy. “Freedom – well you had freedom in Ukraine from the very beginning. From 1991 since when it broke free form the Soviet Union, you had freedom of press, freedom of expression. So that’s not the problem and the Orange Revolution was not about freedom as such. People did not feel oppressed; it was about something different. It was about breaking through into a more prosperous country. And this dour regime failed to impress people – especially young people.”

The consequences of a successful ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt will be even more difficult to achieve in Egypt’s controlled political and social environment, but the scale of the change would also make the country less subject to the dangers of backslide that have been seen, especially, in Ukraine. Proponents of democracy in Egypt will have to content with an active military and political Islam, but, if the protesters are successful, Egypt will be a truly changed country.

Analysts have suggested that the wave of uprisings in the Arab world may embolden dissidents elsewhere, putting authoritarian leaders worldwide on the retreat for the first time in a half decade. Chrystia Freeland, an editor for Reuters, quoted Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in her blog as highlighting similarities between the Putin and Mubarak regimes, saying, “both are corrupt regimes and both regimes have been about the enrichment of a small group of people around the leader.”

Such parallels in Russia and elsewhere in the Former Soviet Union are premature. The greatest repercussions for Russians seem to be isolated to those who have travel plans to Egypt, as opposed to opponents of the Kremlin. Moreover, Mubarak spurned expectations that he would resign fully from the presidency as recently as Thursday evening, and may yet emerge with an intact regime. A successful transition to democracy in Egypt, nonetheless, would be of great importance and give champions of democracy their first credible success in years.
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