30 years after Berlin, walls are obstructing hope in the Arab world

In any part of the region, interconnected populations realise the commonality of their dreams and they want a stake in their respective countries.
Sunday 10/11/2019
Lebanese demonstrators gather outside the the Telecom company during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon (Saida) on November 8. (AFP)
Lebanese demonstrators gather outside the the Telecom company during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon (Saida) on November 8. (AFP)

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago, on November 9, 1989, was a testament to the irrepressible human yearning for freedom.

Restrained for too long by communist rulers, Eastern Europeans just wanted out. They saw greener and freer pastures beyond their borders.

Well before East German border guards opened the Berlin passageway in October 1989, the authoritarian governments of the time saw the writing on the wall.

In June 1989, Hungarian and Austrian foreign ministers were cutting through the barbed wire separating their countries. Others soon followed suit. They were removing long-standing separations that much of Eastern Europe erected after Hungary built a 260km fence on its Austrian border in 1949.

More than simply physical barriers, these were ideological and political walls consecrating the regimes' distrust of their citizens and their inability to move away from dogmatic constraints.

History shows crossing borders is always the last resort when resources are scarce or when living conditions become unbearable.

Similarly, for decades, breaking through geographic barriers has been the goal of too many among young Arabs. Disillusioned and surrounded by nothing but dead ends at home, they look to emigrate -- even illegally.

Today, many desperate people in the MENA region are more than willing to risk their lives to escape on the makeshift boats of human traffickers, voting with their feet in much the same way Eastern Europeans did for many decades until the 1980s.

Nearly 700 people died while trying to break through the Iron Curtain from East Germany and many more in MENA are no less committed to their cause. Thousands have died trying to cross the Mediterranean during the past few years, driven by poverty, war and a lack of opportunity.

However, unlike Eastern Europeans who fled authoritarian environments, MENA’s desperate youth have few places to find safe harbour.

Since independence, governments south of the Mediterranean have been striking deals with Europeans to fight illegal emigration and, while cooperation in that area was in order, the governments lacked the political vision and ability to draw the right lessons from the steady exodus from their shores.

Many Arab youth, unwilling or unable to leave home, have grown angry staring at walls that need to be torn down. They see prohibitive and oppressive obstacles of sectarianism, failed post-independence policies, bureaucratic and corrupt practices and a lack of freedom. More than anything else, there is a huge wall of distrust between them and their politicians, whom they see as responsible for making their lives miserable and robbing them of their chances for a better future.

Arab protesters may not be acting out against authoritarian communism but they are rebelling against equally rigid norms and obsolete rules. It is not the conflicting interests of a regional power such as Iran that will change the equation. Much like the unhappy populations that suffered under Soviet rule, they see their leaders clinging to the past, or worse, living on another planet.

If the governments of Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and a few other Arab countries are having a tough time dealing with protests, it is because for too long they have been reluctant to initiate genuine reform. They felt they had too many vested interests at stake to volunteer change.

After years of procrastination, such change is much more difficult to introduce in a way that satisfies demanding and disgruntled populations. Much more than in the 1980s, the value systems of good governance, equal opportunity and, above all, freedom have gone global and the Arab region is no exception.

Such forces overpower the image of strength, awe and fear that assailed political regimes used to project and rely upon to preserve their rule. Whatever tools of repression they possess are not enough anymore.

In any part of the region, interconnected populations realise the commonality of their dreams and they want a stake in their respective countries.

With a lack of real and timely reform, radical and abrupt regime change often becomes the alternative.

As Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev told East German President Erich Honecker in October 1989: “Life punishes those who are too late.”

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