Comparisons between 2011 and "our" 1989 cannot stand for a variety of reasons, mainly because, unlike North Africa, most people in the former Communist bloc at the time had a pretty good, albeit distorted, idea of what democracy was and how it worked. This was due to the fact that they hailed from of a culture that had itself created democracy and that already had in place social customs and informal institutions that made the transition to democracy easier. What is the situation in the Middle East?

Most Arab regimes of today are descended from military coups dating back generally to the 1950s and 60s. As Lenin once chalked the equation Soviets + electrification = communism, the colonels who led the revolutions in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya drew in their sands the equation Arab nationalism + an army = independence. Apart from the monarchies that survived the revolutionary fervour, there thus sprang up a model for regimes which seemed to provide a pretty good answer to the problems of the era. The states threw new dams across rivers, built health and education systems, nationalised industries and also won significant backing from the Soviet bloc.

Other factors, however, were at work against democracy. The Arab world was simply unacquainted with the fundamentals that existed, at least in an imperfect form, even in Eastern Europe before 1989. By that we mean civil society, the concept of personal freedom, the tradition of unprejudiced discussion and individual responsibility. Here is one telling example: The name of the Cairo square – Liberation Square – that was thronged with the great rally for freedom was named not in hope of civil liberties, but for the colonel's coup of 1952. The language here is about collective national independence, not the individual autonomy of the citizens of Western countries.

Arab societies are also much more grounded in faith in authority

True Arab nationalism – inspired paradoxically by European socialism and nationalism – was an ideology that was to replace Western concepts, such as the right to the “pursuit of happiness", and after some time it succeeded. It gave people a sense of identity and goals for which they were glad to give up just about anything. Remembering that, the Egyptian regime, feeling weakened, has recently tried to play the national card and revive a new sense of devotion.

Young men in Cairo (women here are seen much less frequently than in more secular Tunisia) also shout slogans like "freedom". But when they are asked to explain in more detail what they are after, they hurry on to words like "justice" (as opposed to corruption and inequality) or "dignity" (in the face of a police state or degrading treatment).

Arab societies are also much more grounded in faith in authority than Western societies are. Views of elders or superiors must be respected. Unpleasant things are not spoken of aloud, and diversity of opinion is often perceived as a problem. A culture of dialogue and, especially, critical commentary is essentially something that will still have to develop if democracy is to have a chance.

Will it be democracy in Egypt or a fundamentalist regime?

The Middle East has not been a hotbed of freedom – in terms of individual life choices and the freedom to spread one’s own views – but it was certainly not a region in which absolutism would be typical, either. There were well-rooted concepts of fair and legitimate government, limited not only by religious law but also by tradition, authority figures and various established institutions. Moreover, Islam believes in basic human equality, which makes it a more suitable environment for democracy than, say, the caste system in India.

Let's turn our attention, however, to present developments. Reflections on the repetition of the "Tunisian scenario" in Egypt are based not only on a mistaken analogy with eastern Europe, but on the apparent similarities between the two north African regimes. The government of Ben Ali was a personal dictatorship of just one social class, whose fate was sealed when the army stood against it. It can’t happen exactly the same way in Egypt. The involuntary departure of Mubarak will not change the fundamental nature of the regime, in which army men enjoy prominent positions.

Will it be democracy in Egypt or a fundamentalist regime? No one can predict that. Perhaps Alexis de Tocqueville's observation about the coming of democracy in the Western world 180 years ago is relevant here. Tocqueville noted that while government by the masses brings many dangers, to stand in the way of the inevitable march is ultimately more dangerous than to walk with it and guide it. Nowhere is it written that Egyptian democracy must be absolutely perfect. And here in the Czech Republic we are well aware that no democracy is ever born whole.

Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer