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The Challenges of 1848 Reprised in the Middle East Today

by Timothy M. Roberts on Feb 16, 2011

Some pundits have compared the recent uprisings in the Middle East to the American Revolution or to the upheavals in Eastern Europe that ended the Cold War. But the 1848 revolutions in Europe may actually provide a better perspective on the challenges that the advocates of democracy in the Middle East face today.

Specifically, the 1848 "springtime of the peoples" shows that overthrowing a government is just half a revolution.  The more difficult half is building a sustainable political structure.  
 
The parallels between 2011 and 1848 are many. The sclerotic monarchies and one-party "republics" of the modern Middle East had forerunners in the kingdoms and empires that ruled in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. In both places political opposition was routinely suppressed, and voting rights were limited. In Britain about 4 percent of the population could vote, and in France about 1 percent.  Voting was similarly restricted elsewhere.
 
Likewise, in the Middle East today many countries have universal voting rights only in theory.  In practice, citizens face the problem that Martin Luther King once highlighted in a different context in his "I Have a Dream Speech": "a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote."
 
Also both regions — Europe in the 1840s and the Middle East in the recent past — existed in the shadow of democracy elsewhere. Nineteenth-century Europeans sometimes looked across the Atlantic at the United States, an isolated country but one that presented a powerful image of government by the people. Even with its voting rights restricted largely to white men, the United States, with 14 percent of the population eligible to vote, was an emergent democracy.
 
The United States still draws attention, of course. Many Arab peoples resent U.S. policies in Iraq and Israel but are attracted to American democracy and technology, including communications technology such as Facebook, which has helped Middle East revolutionaries to coordinate demonstrations.  And Turkey, a secular republic with a Muslim majority, presents an enviable democratic example on the Arabs' doorstep.
 
One of the most interesting parallels between the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and of 2011 in the Middle East is how quickly popular uprisings spread across national borders.  Between January and June 1848, as the news of revolution spread from Naples to Paris to Berlin to Vienna to Budapest, some sixteen different ethnic groups across Europe rebelled against monarchical and imperial government.  Just as the Middle Eastern demonstrators today employ a mix of new digital media and old-fashioned word of mouth, so in the 1840s the revolutionary leaders used new communications media such cheap newspapers and steam railroads along with speeches and street rallies to spread news of revolution quickly before governments could suppress it.  As the uprisings of 2011 ricochet around the Middle East, they seem to mimic the European revolutions of 1848.
 
However, other similarities between Europe in 1848 and the modern Middle East may suggest serious problems for today's would-be founding fathers.
 
While forcing some minor reforms, the 1848 revolutions yielded no new popularly accountable governments. France's revolutionary republic quickly gave way to the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon. French and Austrian armies crushed fledgling republics in the Italian states, and the Russian czar's armies rubbed out Hungarian self-determination. In France and in the German and Italian states, revolutionaries fragmented among constitutional monarchists, radical republicans, and socialists. And Central Europeans split viciously over ethnicity: Slavic peoples did not want to be ruled by Hungarians, who committed acts of ethnic cleansing against minority groups within the Hungarian "nation."
 
The Arab peoples of the Middle East today will have to overcome similar daunting challenges. What will be their goals? Will moderates like Mohamed el-Baradei be able to work with the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Will Jordanians settle for reforms by King Abdullah II, or will they push for a republic? Will Iran or Israel intervene, as Russia did in 1849, to derail revolutionary momentum? Will secular and pious Arabs divide over of religion? Will the United States today, as we and Britain did in 1848, act mainly as places of refuge for failed revolutionaries leaving their countries behind?
 
History suggests it is much too early to call upheavals in the Middle East true revolutions, if by revolution we mean the successful toppling of a government and its replacement by another with staying power and the will to enact liberal reform. A conservative American statesman in 1848, looking at the European revolutions of that year, said with disdain, "They have decreed a republic, but it remains for them to establish one." We can only hope that John C. Calhoun's skepticism, prophetic in 1848, will prove too cynical in 2011.
 

Tim Roberts is an associate professor of history at Western Illinois University.  He is the author of Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Virginia, 2009).