The Challenges of 1848 Reprised in the Middle East Today

1848 revolutionOne 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?

tim roberts western illinoisHistory 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.

Tm Roberts

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

Published courtesy of the History News Service.


  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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