1848 “Springtime” of Nations: Lessons for the Arab Spring (Part I)

Part I

The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel stated in his magisterial work Phenomenology of Spirit that, “everything is a child of its space and time.” He was right; this fact applies to revolutions, too.

Revolutions are never alike, notwithstanding the similarity of the conditions that propel them. In line with Hegel’s philosophy of history, however, lessons can be extrapolated from a momentous event to illuminate the uncharted path of another.

In virtue of the fact that Arabs have different political and historic experiences, some have argued that the 2011 Arab uprisings are different from the 1848 European revolutions; hence, Arab societies should avail themselves of lessons from societies with similar experiences.

Yet, many historians in the West have compared the two events. Concerned about the pitfalls of history, I decided to reacquaint myself with the 1848 European revolutions. I was astounded by the similarities between the two events.

In Europe, the 1840s were a period of economic distress; it was, after all, called the “hungry forties.” Trade was on the decline, and grain and potato harvests were disastrously below expectations. The result was the potato famine. In addition, the spread of typhoid over the domains of the Habsburg Empire made the situation worse.

In January 1847, reflecting on the deep and worrying distress of the population, a Prussian minister wrote:  “The old year ended in scarcity, the new one opens with starvation. Misery, spiritual and physical, traverses Europe in ghastly shapes- the one without God, the other without bread. Woe if they joined hands.”1

No wonder then that the main slogan of the Paris protesters was “ bread or lead,” meaning either the authorities provide the needy with bread or be prepared for armed insurrections.

The beginning of the 21st century was likewise a period of great economic distress for the majority of the Arab populations.  Because of the youth bulge, societies were getting younger and poorer, whereas the ruling elites were getting older and vastly richer. At a time when corruption was making the rich and the well connected richer, the young university graduates were uncertain about their chances in a scarce job market, especially without nepotistic intervention. Accessibility to social media made comparison between their “miserable” lives with those of other affluent societies in the region a further reason for discontent. A feeling of despair, consequently, settled in. Such conditions are naturally the prerequisite for social revolutions.

In a remote town in southern Tunisia, Mohamed Bou Azizi set himself alight to protest the ill treatment he received from the municipal authorities, thereby sparking the 2011 Arab uprisings. Satellite TV stations, such as Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya focused attention on the plight of Bou Azizi and on the oppressive manner in which the authorities attempted to suppress the protest movement. This explains the demonstrations in various Arab capitals in support of the Tunisian people.

In 1848, Paris was not the first to experience the revolutionary upheaval. Violence, as a matter of fact, first took place in Sicily, Naples, Venice, and Milan. Yet, the shocks of the revolution spread across Europe after the violence erupted in France. How does one, then, explain the rapid spread of the revolutionary violence across the continent?

One of the towering figures of nineteenth century European politics, Klemens Von Metternich, quipped that the reason Europe caught the revolutionary virus from France is that: “when France sneezed, Europe would catch a cold.”2

In the case of the 2011 Arab uprisings, the reason for the rapid spread from Tunisia could be relegated to the feeling of historical and cultural affinity, and to the indomitable belief among Arabs that they, indeed, have a common destiny. Moreover, the similarities in the degree of oppression, corruption, nepotism, and heavy-handed use of the security forces were factors in the rapid spread of the revolutionary fervor. Furthermore, Arab satellite stations played a cardinal role in reviving feelings of Arab nationalism, thereby spreading a sense of common Arab grievances. By contrast, the Arab world was not as receptive to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 notwithstanding the fact that Tehran calls the Arab Spring an “Islamic Awakening.”

One of the obvious similarities is the relative rapidity with which the uprisings spread. Technology played a role in the domino-like contagion: steam power in 1848 and social media and satellite televisions in 2011.

Like the 2011 Arab uprisings, where greater emphasis in relatively prosperous societies was put on dignity, freedom of speech etc., the demands of the revolutionaries in 1848 varied from one country to another. In the West, demand for political and social change was their overriding concern; in the East, national aspirations were more powerful.3  Similarly, fears were expressed in 1848 that an international socialist plot was behind the upheaval. In the 2011 case, Arab regimes tried to saw discord by fostering the argument that the uprisings were in fact a concoction of Islamists who were bent on “islamisizing” societies and reversing civil right gains.

The 1848 European revolutions were, like the 2011 Arab uprisings, spontaneous, without a guiding ideology and, indeed, leaderless. The objective was to rid the people of despised dictators, but the objective was “unclear on the social and political orders that should replace them.”4

In 2011 the Arab uprisings were led by the educated middle class. Their slogans were freedom, democracy, end of corruption, more jobs, rule of law and accountability.

After the revolution, the French elections in April 1848 empowered an exceedingly conservative Parliament, prompting the politician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to observe that “universal suffrage is counter-revolution.”

Interestingly, in the two Arab countries that were offered the opportunity to exercise the right to freely choose their own representatives, namely Tunisia and Egypt, chose Islamist parties.

In the pre-1848 revolutions, the European political order, shaped by the 1815 Congress of Vienna, saw the threat to be emanating from liberalism and nationalism. The Congress, therefore, sought to keep the twin threats under constant scrutiny. Absolutist Monarchies, the Habsburg, Czarist Russia, and Prussia ruled continental Europe till 1848 without much regard to the depredations of their subjects. In this context, it is noteworthy how the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich of Austria responded to the demanded of Italian nationalists for unification by characterizing Italy as a “geographical expression.”5

On the other hand, the political order that reigned before the efflorescence of the Arab Spring was remarkably notable for the coexistence between republics and monarchies. The tensions which attended the conduct of relations between progressive Republicans and reactionary Monarchists in the period after the Egyptian revolution of 1952 receded after the triumph of what the Egyptian journalist, Mohamed Hassanien Haykal has characterized (playing on a pun) as the victory of thrwah over thawrah. That is to say, wealth has conquered revolution. This was particularly the case after the 1967 Arab defeat.

The increasing influx of oil wealth shifted the political equation in favor of the monarchies. As a matter of fact, the distinction between monarchies and republics in the period prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings was beginning to dissipate. Presidents, after the Syrian precedent, were seriously contemplating to bequeath power to sons. This was the case in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and was certainly the case in Iraq before the demise of Saddam Hussein.

Whereas everyone was enfranchised in the Arab republics’ elections—however farce and rigged the results were —the 1848 European activists were demanding new constitutions and democracies, but they were split as to who should be enfranchised: the moderates  wanted parliamentary democracy but not to enfranchise everyone. Radicals wanted democracy combined with dramatic social reform.6

These differing perspectives divided the revolutionary forces with tragic consequences for the 1848 revolutions: the conservative forces rallied their troops to crush the “menace” to their absolutist monarchies.

Divisions always rebound to the advantages of counter-revolutionaries. This is a lesson to be pondered by today’s Arab revolutionaries.

Read part two of this essay >>

Abdullah Alsaidi is a Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute, and was the Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United Nations from 2002 until his resignation in March 2011.

1Mike Rapport, 1848 Years of Revolutions
New York: Basic Books, 2008.P 37
2Stephen Blank, Is 2011 the Arab World 1848?
3Adamson and Rapport, the Domino-Revolution.
4Jonathan Steinberg, Foreign Affairs.
5Mike Rapport, 1848 Years of Revolutions New York: Basic Books, 2008. P.12