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Stanford scholars deconstruct Middle East uprisings by looking at Europe's past

Scholars draw connections between the revolutionary past of Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia and the recent uprisings in the Middle East.

Joel Carillet/iStockPhoto Images of protests during the Arab Spring

Understanding connections between uprisings of the late 20th century and the recent uprisings in the Middle East may help predict what comes next from today's movements, scholars say.

The recent political uprisings across the Middle East share similarities with the unrest that rippled through Eastern Europe in the late 20th century.

Stanford scholars say studying these connections may lead to a better understanding of what comes next in today's movements.

"We are all trying to puzzle through these various scenarios and understand what political possibilities lie before us," said Robert Crews, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES).

The center recently hosted the 36th Annual Stanford-Berkeley Conference on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Fifteen scholars participated in panel discussions on who makes revolutions, why some fail and how to interpret protest movements.

The daylong conference, "From Prague Spring to Arab Spring: Global and Comparative Perspectives on Protest and Revolution, 1968 – 2012," took on a unique twist from years past by looking beyond the boundaries of Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia. It drew an audience of high school students, undergraduates, faculty and others.

Just as the revolutionary events of 1968 (Czechoslovakia), 1979 (Iran), 1989 (Eastern Europe) and 1991 (Soviet Union) "stretched our political imaginations," Crews said, the current events have challenged scholars to search for an understanding of what may come next.

Corrie Goldman Panelists at conference From Prague Spring to Arab Spring

Left to right: Katherine Jolluck (Stanford) moderates the panel discussion 'Who Makes Revolutions?' with panelists Jane Curry (Santa Clara University), Joel Beinin (Stanford) and Edith Sheffer (Stanford.)

Stanford history Professor Joel Beinin compared the protests in Egypt to the Polish workers' rights movement of the 1980s.

While workers were critical to social mobilization in both countries, Beinin said, one difference was that in Poland, "the escalating worker strikes and economic concessions did give the workers an important role in undermining the legitimacy of the regime and spreading the culture of protest."

Edith Sheffer , an assistant professor of modern European history, added that having a global view on the events of 1989 helps observers to understand broader patterns and connections across world regions. 

She also noted that 1989 can be understood as a key moment in the history of decolonization, showing how the collapse of communist states in Eastern Europe influenced the actions of the Chinese communist elite during this period. 

During the conference, Crews said, Sean Hanretta, an associate professor of history at Stanford, "reconstructed the remarkable story of [former Libyan leader Moammar] Qaddafi's African entanglements that now leave those countries in crisis in the post-Qaddafi era, while in Senegal many citizens have taken up the Arab Spring as a model for political mobilization there."

And Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and deputy director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, compared the Arab Spring to recent protests in Russia against the government of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Putin, she pointed out, has presided over the emergence of an urban middle class – but it is this very group that has produced outspoken critics who want their voices heard in the political realm.

The conference also included scholars from the University of California-Berkeley and Santa Clara University.

Edward Walker, of the UC-Berkeley Political Science Department, talked about the various paths of post-communist states. He suggested would-be revolutionaries in the Middle East and North Africa likely await even graver challenges in achieving their goals.

"All of us interested in global politics still have so much to learn from the collapse of communism in Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia," said Crews.  "The story is still unfolding, and there remain many lessons to be explored that may help us navigate a global political landscape."

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.