On one level, this was a bucket-list trip to Europe and Russia. On another, it was a trip through history ó and its unmistakable implications for the Middle East.
I spent most of May playing tourist in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Moscow and St. Petersburg, seeing sights missed on visits as a journalist.
But there was no escaping this lesson: It has taken the Europeans centuries to arrive at stable democracy. The Russians are nowhere near it yet ó quite the opposite.
So, what about the Arabs? Much as President Barack Obama and the rest of us want to hope for and encourage happy outcomes from the popular rebellions sweeping the Middle East, it would be wise to seriously plan for the worst.
If you visit the palaces and cathedrals of Old Europe, you canít help but understand why the masses ultimately revolted against their Hapsburg, Wittelsbach, Hohenzollern and Romanoff rulers, who lavished the fruits of workersí labor on gilded monuments to themselves.
Dazzling as they are ó Catherine the Greatís palaces, gardens, crowns, jewels and coaches in and around St. Petersburg, over-the-top them all ó the only wonder is why it took until 1918, following World War I, for the empires to be toppled.
The answer, of course, is the same one that accounts for the fact that itís taken until 2011 for popular uprisings to challenge or topple the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen ó oppression, secret police, goon squads, prohibitions on free speech and assembly, and massacres when necessary.
In Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia, the revolts that followed World War I resulted either in brief interludes of quasi-democracy or Socialist rule ó only to be followed in quick order by either fascist or Communist takeovers.
The horrors of World War I led within a generation to the horrors of World War II, then to Soviet rule over Eastern Europe until Communismís collapse in 1989.
Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic finally are stable democracies. Hungary is free, too, but the right-wing Fidesz party is imposing worrisome constitutional changes and press laws.
Russia is anything but free. Itís a place where investigative journalists and political foes of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can easily wind up in jail or dead. Corruption is rife.
Statues of Josef Stalin are out of sight, but those of Vladimir Lenin remain in place. Plans to move Leninís tomb out of Red Square are off the table.
So, what does all this tell us about the Arab world? That itís going to be tough to transition from autocracy to democracy. Itís taken Central Europe, basically, almost a century since 1918 to get it right.
All peoples surely yearn for peace, self-rule and security. But achieving stability requires popular discipline, wise leadership and free institutions that most Arab nations lack.
Of the Arab countries throwing off their despots, Tunisia seems to have the best chance ó partly because of its secular tradition and historic connection to France. But, even there, talented people are fleeing and the economy is in danger.
Egypt is the most important country in the region and the signs there are not good.
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