Conflict & Justice

Lessons for Egypt from Ukraine

By Brigid McCarthy

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As Egyptians celebrated the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last month, Yevhen Fedchenko watched with mixed emotions.

"We share your euphoria," he said. "But let's see what will happen next."

Fedchenko is a professor of journalism in Ukraine, at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

He's been paying close attention to the popular uprisings that have swept across Egypt and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East because they remind him of what happened in his own country.

During Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens rose up and overturned a fraudulent presidential election. Many hailed the Orange Revolution as the birth of democracy in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.

"From a psychological point of view and a sociological point of view, both events [in Ukraine and in Egypt] are really great to start people expressing their feelings," Fedchenko said.

But more than six years after the Orange Revolution, the transition to democracy in Ukraine remains rocky, and some Ukrainians contend their country's missteps hold important lessons for Egyptians today.
Hope and expectations

"There's always great hope and a great expectation about the outcomes of the revolution," said Anastasia Bezverkha, one of the student leaders of the Orange Revolution.

But she cautioned that a revolution alone cannot guarantee profound and sustainable social change. Yevhen Fedchenko said his country made a "great mistake" by depending on one man to fulfill the hopes of the revolution.

That man was Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate who beat the incumbent president's handpicked successor only after nationwide protests forced a rematch.

After President Yushchenko was sworn in, Ukraine's pro-democracy activists folded up their tents and orange banners and went home. They figured their work was done. Then they watched in dismay as Yushchenko failed to enact any meaningful political reform during his five years in office.
Back to pre-2004

"Ukraine is now moving back to a pre-2004 period in terms of political culture, pressure on the media, and opposition," said Fedchenko. "That's always a problem with revolutions when you really expect big changes and you rely heavily on one person to do that, and this person fails."

President Yushchenko won just 5 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election last year.

The man who won the presidency, Viktor Yanukovich, has quickly restored one-party rule in Ukraine, harassed and jailed opposition figures, and brought Ukraine firmly back into the Russian sphere of influence. President Yanukovich, by the way, was the candidate who tried to steal the 2004 election, which sparked the Orange Revolution.

Student leader Bezverkha said true systemic change takes sustained grassroots activism, and she thinks Egypt faces even greater challenges in this regard than Ukraine.

"In [a] country where there was a military rule for so many years, where there was an authoritarian regime, it's hard to establish a democratic society within a year or two," she said. "There has to be a strong will of the whole nation to build the institutions that will ensure democratic change is happening as a system, not as the will of a certain politician."

She and other veterans of the Orange Revolution still hope Ukraine can resume its transition to democracy, and they will be watching to see whether citizen activists in Egypt and other parts of the Arab can help their countries achieve that transition, too.