Is Egypt like Poland in 1989?

Historians oft credit Poland with starting the revolutions of 1989 and over throwing their government first.  But when i talked with revolutionaries in eastern Europe in the summer of 1990, the credit was given to Hungary.  For it was Hungary that cut the fence, it was Hungary that said to East Germany and the Soviet Union, we will no longer patrol your border.  And with this risky move started the flow of especially east Germans into the west.

But Hungary is a strange island in eastern Europe.  It is linguistically and culturally different from it’s neighbors.  It is small geographically (the size of Maine) and in population (only 10 million people, many dislocated ethnic Romanians).  And Hungary had been fringish in the Eastern Block from the beginning.

The cascading revolutions of 1989 and 1991, might well not have happened if only Hungary had broken away.  Poland was the anvil that tipped the balance.  With nearly 40 million people, deeply Slavic and heavily industrial, Poland was at the center of the Soviet European satellite system, it started a fire under or threw fuel on embers through out the region.

Tunisa (who’s government fell in January of this year) , like Hungary, is small (around 10 million), affluent compared to its neighbors and not in itself a big domino.  But Egypt just might be.

This morning Hosni Mubarak stepped down.  It’s not a magic bullet- Egypt’s high unemployment, lack of opportunities for young people, and systemic poverty won’t disappear with a new government.    But the promise of a new government is certainly something to celebrate.

In Jordon, King Abdullah II fired his Prime Minister and schuffled the government.  In Lybia, peaceful protests are planned soon to shadow Moammar Gadhafi, who just recently supported Mubarak.  Thousands have protested Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years — and has pledged not to stand for re-election when his current term ends.  Many are asking “Can 80 million Egyptians be wrong?”

The stories coming out of Egypt have been amazing- in large part because they demonstrated how a shared enemy can make forge unexpected alliances.  Muslims and Christians standing guard while the other group prays, soldiers and protesters co-operating, and so much more.

In both Tunisia and Egypt the internet was vital to spreading information on planned protests, and to circumventing the state-controlled media in these countries. Egypt’s revolution also demonstrated that completely cutting off access to the internet is nearly impossible; when the Egyptian government clamped down access to Twitter and Facebook people shared the numerical IP address to access the site indirectly.  When the government shut down access to broadband and mobile-phone based internet, European internet providers offered free dial-up access to the Egyptian people.  These strategies were also shared online, creating a permanent resource which future revolutionaries and protesters can use; the only thing better than having these strategies during a revolution is being able to prepare them before the crisis starts.

People should not fear their governments, governments should fear their people. It remains to be seen if the new government will be better than the old, but what’s true is that the people now know that they have the power to bring down a regime. I hope that the U.S. government, especially those who cut taxes for the rich while dismantling the already minuscule safety net for the poor, will look at Egypt and remember what can happen to a government when the people have nothing left to lose.

[Thanks to Angie who got me going on this and wrote most of the later half.]