Much has changed in North Africa since the winter of 2011. But a lot more has not. To understand this, it’s worth looking at other countries that have undergone similarly radical changes. In post-Communist Europe, for example, countries that faced similar problems took very different paths after they elected democratic governments in 1990. Yet some fell into economic stagnation or political turmoil while others thrived.

Neither politics nor economics alone explains the differences. On the contrary, the factor most closely linked to stability and growth is human: Those countries that had an “alternative elite”—a cadre of people who had worked together in the past, who had thought about government and who were at some level prepared to take it over—were far more likely both to carry out radical reforms and to persuade the population to accept them. Hungary, Poland —and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states—all benefited from the presence of people who had been thinking about change, and organizing to carry it out, for a long time. …

As the Arab Spring nations mark their second anniversaries, it’s worth keeping this precedent in mind. True, there were dissenters of many kinds in pre-revolutionary Egypt, as one expert told Foreign Policy this week. But “they were largely suppressed, except for the mosque and the soccer pitch. With these two institutions, the numbers were too big and the emotions they evoked were too strong.” The result: The Muslim Brotherhood was the only political “party” with any organizational capacity after 2011. And Egyptian soccer clubs are the only organization that can reliably be counted on to create major protests, as they have recently. Another alternative elite was not available.