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Why the Arab Spring is Likely to Disappoint Those Who Are Making it Happen

In the spring of 2008 I attended a talk at the German Historical Institute given by Bärbel Bohley, one of the leaders of the democratic opposition in East Germany (DDR) in the late 1980s. Her talk was part of a series of reflections on the end of the Communist regime in the DDR in 1989 and the reunification of Germany that took place the following year. Many in the audience, me included, were surprised at Bohley’s bitterness over the results of Germany’s reunification after more than six decades of division.

Instead of telling us why it had been a good thing that the fall of the old regime had led to reunification, Bohley argued that reunification had destroyed a nascent and in her view, authentically democratic political culture that was in the first stages of development in the DDR in the months that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. As one of the founders of the Neues Forum, the main opposition group in the DDR in 1989, Bohley played a key role both in bringing down the old regime and in trying to shepard that nascent political culture from an inchohate protest to a way of living and governing.

Instead, the West German political system essentially rolled out across the territory of the DDR and the vast majority of the political actors signed on to one or another of the pre-existing parties from the West. Instead of a new form of politics as envisioned by Bohley, East Germans were simply absorbed into the political culture of West Germany.

When the revolts in North Africa, the Middle East, and perhaps in Iran end, as they surely will, many of those who fought to bring down the old regimes will likely find themselves feeling much as Bohley did. Yes, it will feel wonderful to be free of the oppressive hand of the old regime and much will be better. But the new states that emerge from revolutions rarely match up with aspirations of the revolutionaries. How those new states manage the disappointment arising from this mismatch invariably becomes one of their first big tests.