Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thinking of the people in the Middle East…

Like many of you, I have been thinking about the people in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East where there’s been unrest lately.

I don’t have anything really profound to say about the recent events there. I have never lived in the Middle East. I don’t know the region intimately. But my heart goes out to the people in the streets because I have been there. In the streets. Protesting. And I know people don’t do it unless they are really fed up with their situation and can’t endure it any longer. It takes bravery to do that because you never know if/when those things will turn violent.

20 years ago, I witnessed the fall of communism in my native Bulgaria. I was in high school at the time. It was a crazy time and I still remember the mixed emotions we all felt. At first there was the shock and disbelief that the totalitarian regime, which had been in power from before I was born, was gone. Just like that! Of course, we had wanted it gone for a long time because it was repressive, stifling and inefficient but still, it was hard to grasp because we didn’t know anything else.  Then there was the euphoria - we had done it and we were finally going to be a normal country, not one behind the Iron Curtain. We were anticipating (however naively) the change to be relatively quick and painless a la “yesterday we were a communist country, today we are a democracy and we are all going to start small businesses and live happily ever after.”

What we learned was that changes are never simple. The transition of Eastern European countries from communism to market economy has not been smooth or easy. It’s taken a long time and in some ways it’s still ongoing. We too wanted the people that had been in power gone, which was understandable but easier said than done. These people had been in power for a long time, they weren’t going to just give it up. They had lived well (much better than the average population), they had assets and connections. They did everything they could to stay in control in some capacity.

On the other hand, the former opposition wasn’t exactly prepared to lead the country in uncharted territory. It’s one thing to protest and organize against a corrupt, totalitarian regime but completely different to lead a country out of a serious crisis. No one had gone from communism to market economy before. It’s not like there was a magic formula to follow. So, of course, things got worse before they got better, which didn’t help the new leaders (former opposition). On more than one occasion, the former communists came back with a vengeance saying that the new democratic leaders didn’t know what they were doing and should step down and let the old guard show them how it’s done. In the meantime, many of the former communists were weaving all kinds of corrupt schemes, which allowed them to profit from the privatization of formerly government-owned enterprises, drug trafficking, people smuggling, illegal trade with the Former Yugoslavia during the embargo and other nefarious activities. Corruption was rampant. In some ways it still is. It was (and can still be) very difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.

That is not to say that the fall of communism was a bad thing. On the contrary, I am so glad it happened in my lifetime because a lot of things have changed for the better. There are a lot more opportunities in Bulgaria now. Especially for young people. Things are not perfect but the standard of living has improved and Bulgaria is relatively stable. It is also part of the EU. All wonderful things, which I am very proud of.

But it wasn’t easy or straightforward and that’s why I follow the events in the Middle East with trepidation. Because transitions like that can be a blessing and a curse. They usually require changes in mentality/culture on a national or regional level and that can take a long time, perhaps even a generation. No one knows how things are going to turn out. Changes in power structures can have unintended consequences. And that makes many people very nervous about the Middle East right now…

But it’s not my place to make recommendations or predictions. I just hope the people in the Middle East get what they are fighting for. I hope better days are ahead for them. I hope they are blessed with competent leaders and most of all I hope they can do it peacefully.


  1. A very thoughtful and insightful post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. A wonderful post. I worry so much for the people. I know that change is needed, however, I also know this is a painful process. I want the Egyptian people to have a chance at a better life as well.


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