Saturday, January 29, 2011

Feels Like 1989?

With a title like that, you could be excused for thinking you were headed into a post about big hair, the Cure, and other hazards of the '80s.  But I'm actually thinking about politics.  For the last few days, the moment I awaken I've scrambled downstairs to check in with NPR and see how events in Egypt are unfolding.  These sorts of political movements are a long-standing interest of mine, both professional and personal.

In the spring of 1989, I was a senior, preparing to graduate UCLA with a degree in political science and history.  That quarter, I was enrolled in a graduate seminar called "Problems in Communism"  and when Chinese protesters took to Tianammen Square we suddenly had live evidence of the problems of communism.  Chinese nationals, mostly graduate students in the sciences, poured into our seminar class, used the professor's fax machine to communicate with their fellow students in Beijing, and we all held our breath and hoped for a flicker of political freedom in China.

In that class, I wrote a final paper about the German Democratic Republic.  It was a paper in which I argued that the changes in Hungary would make their way to East Germany, as the citizens of that nation sought the freedoms and consumer goods of the west.  The professor wondered if I was being over-optimistic about the appeal of washers and dryers.

By September, I was in graduate school studying political science, when change rapidly arrived in Eastern Europe.  I would awaken each morning of that November to news of more people in more places sliding the iron curtain open, and acquiring the freedom of westerners.  I was reading and writing about Solidarity in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and we were all discussing how much a world of 24 hour media made these revolutions possible.  It was a glorious fall.

A little more than twenty years later, there's more than 24 hour media to aid peoples seeking political change.  In the last five years, the internet, and its attendant prospects for social media and instant communication, have spurred protests in Iran, events in Georgia, changes in Tunisia, and now something is happening in Egypt.  Whereas change in Eastern Europe invariably meant a transition to western-style democracy for the former Soviet Bloc states, it's not at all clear what Egyptian democracy might mean.  It could be a government led by Mohamed El Baradei.  It could mean the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Middle East is a political powder keg, which makes events in Egypt that much more compelling.

And so I wait.  I read updates at Juan Cole's website.  I check out the New York Times.  I follow a few newsworthy Twitter feeds.  I listen and read the news at NPR.  But mostly I think of the Egyptians and offer them my hope for a better future.  Which feels a lot like 1989.  I guess that some things never change.

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