Why the post-Communist transitions of Eastern European governments hold some surprising lessons for the fledgling democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — If anyone can understand the rush of change that revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing right now, it’s their counterparts in post-communist Eastern Europe.
This region gorged on change, evolving — painfully — from dictatorship to democracy. After decapitating the leadership, East Europeans know what comes next. The purge. It’s begun in Egypt and Tunisia, with a despised target in the crosshairs: secret police.
For the Egyptian dissidents and Islamists persecuted or even tortured by the State Security Investigative Service, Hosni Mubarak’s Feb. 11 abdication wasn’t enough. Real liberation came the weekend of March 5, when they went after the regime’s “planning brain” and most feared weapon: its 500,000-strong intelligence agency. Word had spread that State Security bosses were shredding files and burning other incriminating evidence. Thousands of men stormed past security cordons in Alexandria and Cairo to scour secret-police headquarters for proof of human-rights abuses.
Not to be outdone, Tunisia dismantled its State Security Department altogether on March 7. The interim Interior Ministry said the aim was to foster a “climate of confidence and transparency … between the security services and the citizen.” Several days later, Egypt announced it was symbolically renaming its state security service, as a “national security” agency with a dramatically narrowed focus — just terrorism.
Amid the new drama that unfolds every day in Egypt and Tunisia, these swipes at the regime’s tormentors stand out as an early test of how truly committed reformists are to their own calls for democracy and human rights.
Vigilante justice is one thing. Transitional justice is another: Not only a break with the past, but the creation of a new political culture based on civic freedoms and rule of law. To see this kind of transition firsthand, North Africans need only peer across the Mediterranean and study what post-authoritarian Eastern Europe has undergone during the past two decades.