JFK Berlin Speech: 50 Years Later, the Walls Are All Falling Down

Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy’s speech in Berlin, the walls are coming down across the world. On the morning of June 26, 1963 Mr. Kennedy drove to the Brandenburg Gate. He peered into the east, gray and sullen. He had already begun jotting down phrases. That day President Kennedy was in the right place at the right time to give a historic speech. He ignored the traditional traits of political speeches which were wreathed in banality, euphemism and cliché. Rather, he spoke his mind. President Kennedy expressed his view of injustices when stating, “There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.” President Kennedy’s speech stirred the emotional fervor of Berliners in such a way that even Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could only view with admiration.

Fifty years later, the walls are falling but not in Europe, but rather in the Middle East and South America. Two years after the start of the Arab Spring, and the attack against autocratic leaders is still strong. Four rulers have been overthrown in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, with a civil war still raging in Syria and populist unrest in Turkey and Brazil. But how successful have these democratic movements really been?

Tunisia has endured the most successful transition. After the fall of dictator Zin el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisians moved quickly on to elections, which were won by the Ennahda party with 41% of the vote. The government has been based on a coalition of a moderate Islamist party and a moderate secular party, which could become a new model for the Middle East. But this doesn’t mean that Tunisia is totally immune to any sort of internal issues in its pursuit of democracy. Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder and president of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, has expressed his concerns when stating, “The revolution has weakened the state … this has given an opportunity to different groups to try to push the boundaries and cross the law. Extremists on both sides, whether on the religious right or the extreme left have tried to impose their views with no respect for the law."

Meanwhile, Egypt and Libya continue to struggle in their attempt to establish functional democratic systems. The popular uprising in Egypt was swiftly co-opted by Islamist movements and the people of Egypt soon found themselves with a Muslim Brotherhood government, under the leadership of Mohamed Morsi, which has quickly begun to steer the country towards another authoritarian state. Meanwhile in Libya, the situation is even less clear. Following the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, the country has been in turmoil. The General National Congress has proved to be a weak, coalition government seemingly unable to curb the power of Islamist militias and other criminal bands. Outside of Tripoli, the power of the GNC is limited despite its attempts to rein in the militias that have refused to disband. The situation in Libya has an eerie resemblance to what occurred in Lebanon. Twenty-three years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the Lebanese central government still faces the difficulties of maintaining order over militia groups such as Hezbollah. Thus far the democratic transition looks bleak in Egypt and Libya as their Arab Spring will soon enter the Arab Winter phase.

In Turkey and Brazil the foundations of governments are crumbling, but to a lesser extent than in the Arab world. So far, four people have been killed and 7,500 injured during the protests taking place in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan has called the protests a plot against Turkey and has defended the police response, which has included tear gas and water cannons. Many factors have fueled the populist unrest in Turkey, but most glaring has been the ruling party’s recent authoritarian agenda. Turkey has been modeled as a secular state since its founding by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after World War I, but Erdogan’s government has been aligning itself with the religious factions of the Turkish society in recent years, prompting mass unrest from the majority of the middle-class, secular population.

In Brazil protesters have filled cities across the country to air a wide spectrum of grievances, including the high cost of hosting next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Belo Horizonte has had some of the most violent clashes between police and protesters since the country was swept by a wave of demonstrations calling for better education, transport and health services. Brazil, a member of BRICS, a group of countries with up-and-coming economies, has experienced difficulties lately. As a recent boom has petered out, Brazil’s economic growth slowed to 0.9% last year. In general, Brazil’s recent focus promoting raw materials exports and maintaining loose monetary policy has inflated the value of its currency. Protesters’ grievances are united around a common theme: social inequity. They decry a political culture marked by corruption, a general lack of a return on high taxes, and point to inadequate government upkeep and spending on infrastructure, education, and health care, according to a Time magazine report.

Whether it is authoritarian rulers collapsing in the Middle East or populist unrest in democratic Turkey and Brazil, one certainty is that the walls of these countries' foundations are being shaken and possibly on the brink of falling.