The mass protests in the Middle East and North Africa have succeeded in overthrowing the leadership of oppressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, with potentially more to follow. Observers have likened the apparent domino effect to the fall of communism in Eastern bloc European countries, which began in 1989. Strategic Defence Intelligence investigates whether the countries currently embroiled in political upheaval can expect the outcome enjoyed by the former communist states.

Demonstrations first broke out in the Algerian capital Algiers in December, as a result of rising food prices, housing shortages, and wider social and political grievances.

Unrest quickly spread through Tunisia and Egypt, both of which have now overthrown their governments. Anti-government protests have erupted throughout the region, with demonstrations taking in place in countries including in Morocco, Libya, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain.

Although the eventual outcome of the protests remains to be seen, it is likely that the oppressive regimes of many of these countries, kept in power for decades through corrupt elections, could also be deposed.

On the face of it, the fall of communism in Europe followed a similar cry from the populace for regime change. However, in Eastern Europe the driver was mainly a push for the liberalisation of the countries’ economies, which took overthrowing the control of the state to achieve. The weakened power of the USSR to stifle such reform movements in satellite states enabled the fall of communism to take place.

By contrast, in the Middle East many economies are thriving and unrest and anger have grown among young people who see the fruits of substantial growth siphoned off by corrupt elites. The economic model itself does not need to change as it did in former Soviet states, but a democratic government would go a long way towards the fairer distribution of wealth.

When Eastern European countries threw off Soviet rule, they underwent a lengthy period of transition as economies dominated by heavy industry and agriculture with 100% employment came to an end. Only later could they join the EU, benefit from aid and freely participate in an international job market.

Without the equivalent of the EU as a buffer, the international community is watching the Arab world to see what the short- and long-term outcomes will be. The hope is that democratic governments and free elections will improve conditions for the ordinary citizen. The fear is that without a change in the fundamental power structure, new faces could fill old roles in the same type of government or a more radical regime could step in.