Polish Revolution of 1989 and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 Compared

Over 20 years passed timespan between the Polish revolution of 1989 and Egyptian revolution of 2011. Both actions reflect the peoples’ will to civil freedoms and democracy. Both reveal the increased resentment against authoritarian rule. Both revolutions led to the change of government. The significant timespan, geopolitical, historical, and social considerations status between the revolutions define the difference in strategies of protesters and the outcome of the event. In Poland, the democratic movement resulted in political and economic reforms that ended in European integration of Poland. In Egypt, civil unrests continue in our days. This essay will discuss the prerequisites of Polish revolutionary attempt in 1981 and revolution of 1989 and Egyptian revolution of 2011, the strategies employed by protesters, and the effectiveness of those strategies in securing peaceful transition to democracy.

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Poland 1981

After the World War II, Poland became a Communist People’s Republic fully subordinated to the Soviet Union. It preserved some visible signs of autonomy, such as private property for agricultural land, but implementation of any reforms was only possible upon the blessing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The Party of Poland that adopted communist ideology and acted as a local affiliate of CPSU was Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR); it had ruled the country without any alternative for over three decades by 1981. Communism was no longer a goal, and socialism became the means of securing public interests. The government sought for retaining power in its hands; it became bureaucratic and bourgeois. Basic civil rights of the citizens were permanently infringed. Socialist economy failed to secure economic stability. Government attempts to reform the economy provoked mass protests; 1970 demonstrations in Gdansk were cruelly suppressed. 

Ironically, workers became the driving force of the democratic movement. In 1980, the shipyard workers of Gdansk started a movement for economic and civil rights called Solidarity. A young trade-union leader Lech Walesa headed the movement. In December 1981, Gdansk shipyards went on a strike. Among their demands were release of political prisoners, freedom of faith, and end of political censorship. Army General Wojciech Jaruzelski sent troops to suppress the protests and imposed martial law throughout the country. During several weeks following the dispersion of protesters, mass arrests and interrogations followed. The leaders of Solidarity including Walesa were sent to prison. Martial law was suspended in 1983.

In his memoir, Jaruzelski explained his hardline actions with state necessity. First, he viewed Solidarity as immature and uncontrolled force unable to take responsibility for social processes at that moment. Second, the possibility of Soviet intervention to Poland as it happened in 1956 Hungary and 1968 Czechoslovakia was high. Jaruzelski wanted to preserve the relative domestic and external stability to avoid economic collapse and loss of independence. 

Poland 1989

The shock of defeat in 1981 did not ruin the Solidarity. The organization went underground; it became more organized and disciplined. New leaders that escaped arrests emerged, among them Zbigniew Bujak. Bujak and his colleague Wiktor Kulerski advocated for building independent civil society outside traditional political measures. Bujak wrote, “Local groups and social circles in the community should organize . . . to build a system of social structures independent of the state”. They promoted civic and political education of young people. Jacek Kuron who insisted on militant answer to the state repressions expressed the ideas of a more radical wing in Solidarity. Other radical groups were the Fighting Solidarity and the Circles of Social Resistance (KOS). Underground press (NOWA and Independent Information Service) published the works of dissidents. In the atmosphere of total mistrust to the government, opposition papers targeted more than a million people in 1984. 

Solidarity leaders openly used the possibilities formally guaranteed by the Polish Constitution and went beyond it secretly. The scope of resistance was huge. Students, intelligentsia, workers and artists supported the democratic drive. For example, the authorities had to establish a curfew in Swidnik because during the official news program almost the whole city went out for a walk. In Warsaw, elderly women laid flower in the square in the form of a cross to commemorate the late Cardinal Wyszynski. Such actions of non-violent resistance were the best indicator of the deep social discord. Demonstrations and strikes continued though the government suppressed them time after time.

Inability of the PZPR to secure economic stability, loss of authority among the citizens, moral degradation of the party leaders revealed its impotence in the current situation. In the end of 1982, Jaruzelski released Lech Walesa from prison. Walesa immediately launched into the struggle. He proved to be a consequent and uncompromising opposition leader. At the same time, he realized that negotiations with government were inevitable and showed his readiness to peaceful talks. Though PZPR won local election in 1984 and national election of 1985, it was no longer able to preserve the status quo.

Opposition found partial support with the Catholic Church of Poland that also suffered persecutions under the Communist regime and still had great influence on Poles. The Church was seeking for improvement of its position in the Communist state; at the same time, many priests of lower rank supported common people. Anyway, the Catholic Church was a moderate force that opposed radicalization of the society and extreme measures. 

The wave of powerful strikes provoked by inflation in 1988 led to legalization of the Solidarity. Jaruzelski’s government agreed about the necessity of public talks. Finally a series of roundtable talks took place with participation of three parties: government, Solidarity, and the Catholic Church. By 1989, the air of freedom had spread over Eastern Europe. During the “Autumn of the People,” communist regimes collapsed one after another in the socialist countries. The Soviet Union could not interfere because it was suffering the same trouble. In the result of the first democratic election in Poland on June 4, 1989, Solidarity won and Lech Walesa became a President. Assisted by progressive professors, like Bronislaw Geremek of Warsaw University, the democratic forces launched market reforms, modernization, democratization, and privatization.

Egypt 2011

The Egypt of 2011 was in a different situation. In this case, 30 years long authoritarian rule of President Mubarak preceded the revolt. Egypt also faces the internal and external problems connected with activity of Islamist parties. After a series of bloody protests and police violence, Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011. However, his successors failed to establish public order in the country. Demonstrations, acts of  terror and violence reigned in the country. Opposition suffered persecution, tortures, unfair accusations and imprisonment during Mubarak’s rule; after the revolution, the situation did not change. Democratic election that brought President  Morsi to power did not result in positive changes. The political crisis had lasted 2.5 years until the military detained President Morsi on July 3, 2013.

The revolution of 2011 had to result in the change of power and democratic amendments to the Constitution. Instead, Islamists forced the elections to take advantage of their popularity. While people voted for the amendments at the referendum, they were not adopted, Instead, some “temporary constitution” was forced. As the result, the coalition of the opposition forces fell apart.


It is obvious that the outcomes of the two revolutions differ dramatically. As history shows, peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy is an exception rather than a rule. The vacuum of power that emerges in the result of a revolution attracts new players with contradictory goals. Przeworski highlights that “conflicts inherent in transition to democracy occur on two fronts: between the opponents and defenders of the authoritarian regimeabout democracy and among the proto-democratic actors against one another for the best chance under democracy”.  The process of democratization includes two aspects, namely extrication from authoritarianism and constitution of democracy. 

The interaction between Hardliners, Moderates, and Reformers defines the effectiveness of extrication. Poland of 1989 is a classic example of successful extrication. The Reformers of Solidarity and Moderates of the government found consent in the course of the roundtable talks. Hardliners in the person of Jaruzelski gave their consent to democratic reform; they did not use army to suppress the movement. Finally, moderates in the Polish Sejm somewhat limited adoption of radical reforms. 

In the case of Egypt, the radical forces were too strong in the society. There was no accord between the parties. The army allied with reformers in both cases to secure the turn of power; at the same time, military support of reforms was nor consequent or reliable. Religion enhanced radicalization of the society; opposition that was relatively moderate though not well organized reformers, gave way to Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists enjoyed popularity and won the elections of 2012. 

Brown considers non-democratic behavior of the opposition the main failure of revolution. They violated the agreements and did not follow the standards of democratic behavior. For example, upon agreeing that half of the drafters of the future constitution had to be nonpartisan, Muslim Brotherhood employed Islamist adherents. Additionally, they organized street protests time after time not to foster democracy but to support their position. “Islamists plausibly charged non-Islamists with refusing to accept adverse election results, while non-Islamists plausibly charged Islamists with using those same election results to undermine the development of healthy democratic life”. Both parties used people to organize mass riots in their support. SO, Egypt failed  in both extrication from authoritarianism and constitution of democracy.

The comparison of these revolution shows that democratic reforms are not possible unless oppositions forms a relatively steady alliance and is ready to follow the standards of fair behavior. The role of moderate part of the government and the society is difficult to underestimate as a decisive and stabilizing factor. Successful transition of Poland to democracy and Egypt’s failure confirm that organizing a revolution does not secure democratic outcome.