Political unrest in Middle East likely to spread

Normally this space is used to comment on Utah issues. But the recent uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East have the potential to reshape the political map much like the collapse of communism in the 1990s. Because of past experience, I believe I can offer some unique insight into the current unrest that began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and is now echoing in Libya, Yemen, Iran and Bahrain.

In 1990 I was working for a company that had a contract with the USSR Education Ministry. We were hired to teach local government leaders about the free market system. Over the next six years I made dozens of visits and spent many months in Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. I had a front row seat as Eastern Europe switched from communism to a free market and democracy.

When the Berlin wall came down in November 1989, no one imagined that the iron curtain would also shortly be removed from most of the rest of the communist nations. For the most part, the impetus for change was economic, not political. As an economic structure, communism ceased to work. People could accept political oppression as long as they had jobs, money, and a few luxuries. Jobs and money allowed people to feel like they had some control over their own lives. As the jobs and money disappeared, people at first felt powerless and hopeless. Then they got angry.

The unrest spread across the Eastern Bloc. In December 1989, Poland switched from communism to a free market economy and in January 1990, the Communist Party in Poland dissolved. At the same time, the communist grip was coming undone in countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia and more. The collapse of the Soviet Union came in 1991.

Perhaps most surprising was the speed of the change and its general lack of violence. No wars were required to overthrow the political regimes. It happened by the will of the populace for change.

The situation currently unfolding in the Middle East has similar elements. Huge numbers of people are unhappy because they are tired of a constant struggle to obtain and hold onto basic necessities of civilized life. Their resentment is fueled by seeing others who live in comparative luxury because of their birthright or their political connections. When the oppressed masses finally act out it is not because they want freedom and democratic rule. They want better food, better health care, decent plumbing and the hope of better lives for their children.

As we saw in Egypt, whether or not an oppressive government can remain in power when the people want it out depends largely on the military. If the military is willing to fire on its own citizenry then the government can maintain control. In Moscow in 1991 tanks were ordered into the city center by Communist leaders who hoped to retain power. Moscow leader Boris Yeltsin climbed on one of the tanks and gave an impassioned speech to the throngs of protestors. When the soldiers and tanks refused to fire on their own people, the Communists were finished. In contrast, during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 in China, tanks fired on civilian protestors and demonstrators were rounded up and arrested.

No one can predict how the situation in the Middle East will play out in coming weeks, months and years. We would like to think that despotic tyrants will be replaced by benevolent leaders committed to democratic principles. But it doesn’t usually work out that way. Even many democratically elected leaders are more concerned about their personal welfare and legacy than they are about improving the lives of the people they represent.

Like the ending of the Cold War, these current events are unlikely to have a direct major impact on the U.S. economy.  Probably the biggest immediate threat to the U.S. could be a continued rise in oil prices as oil traders worry about a potential disruption in supplies from the Middle East.

For people in the Middle East who are directly caught in the turmoil the current events could have a dramatic impact on their lives for years and perhaps generations to come. For those of us living in the United States the situation is not likely to make much difference in our day-to-day lives other than taking up time on newscasts.

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