The Challenges of 1848 Reprised in the Middle East Today

1848 revolutionSome 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.


  1. says

    A thought-provoking piece.

    Yes, the USA has attractive ‘democracy’ and ‘technology’ – and so do Finland and Japan. And so does Israel – another ‘democratic example on the Arabs’ doorstep’ and indeed with many Arab citizens.

    However, the authors correctly conclude that, despite all the above and other examples, the one nearby really “enviable” ‘democratic example’ for many Islam-focused Arabs is now Turkey – because it has a Muslim majority. And Turkey is becoming even more “enviable” because it’s no longer so secular. Turkey HAS BEEN a secular republic, thanks to the role of its military as ‘guardians of the secular state’ ever since the Ataturk days, but the present Islamist-leaning AKP regime is gradually purging military and other opponents by framing them as alleged plotters against the state in a huge alleged conspiracy . (The regime is thereby delighting many foreigners ignorant of Turkish history whose ideological dogma presumes that in every society the military establishment is always the most evil and regressive force.)

    At best – as the authors cogently write – ‘overthrowing a government is only half a revolution’. At least one perspective finds that even that much has yet to happen in Egypt. Since the 1952 coup, Egypt has been run by the military establishment, by military careerists – Naguib (figurehead), Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. In recent months Mubarak threatened this arrangement by seeking to have his businessman (non-military) son succeed him. The military establishment could not tolerate that, so they have gone along with popular calls for him to leave (but the regime remains). Will they tolerate more actual democracy? Maybe – because they know they don’t know how to manage the Egyptian economy, the world’s most dependent on grain imports. The economic prospects are getting ever worse, what with climate-change-driven drought and resulting huge crop failures (in China and elsewhere) and resulting escalating grain prices.

    What will be really interesting is when we people in supposedly ‘advanced’ and ‘democratic’ societies – like here in the USA – wake up and realize that for practical purposes we have yet to come to our overdue version of 1848. We allegedly have ‘democracy’ but in truth our vaunted ‘democratic’ regimes amount for the most part to republican oligarchies with scant empowered citizen participation in decision-making, but gussied up for popular consumption with a populist veneer of beauty-contest winner-take-all elections.

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