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.