The Middle East’s 1789…or 1848


It is still far too early to know if the torrential protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Iran and Syria will lead to meaningful change. Democrats around the world are hopefully predicting that every country will soon become a democracy. However, where will democracy come from? Democratisation is usually a long and winding road, unless it happens by revolution; and if it happens by revolution, a period of undemocratic violence could reign, as in France in the 1790s, which could lead to the election of another strongman who will restore stability, and the cycle of violence would begin again. After over a decade of experiment as a republic, France crowned Napoleon emperor in 1804, and brought in King Louis XVIII in 1815. Nonetheless, there is always the prospect for real change as well: after all, France is today a vibrant democracy.

Most of the protesters in the Middle East seem not to be demanding democracy but jobs, equality and an end to corruption. Rather than demanding democracy, they are protesting dictatorship. Some regimes will placate protesters by doling out gifts in the form of job-creation programmes, the sacking of the most corrupt ministers, wealth redistribution and so on, which is what democracies do, but others will be swept away. The important question is not have the Ben Alis and Mubaraks gone, but what will replace them?

Many of the democracies in the world are merely electoral democracies. In other words, there are basic freedoms and basic choices as to who will govern, but not much popular control of the government. Most governments are only accountable at election time. Egypt is certainly not a democracy yet, as the army is still in charge, and it might take a long period of hard work if the people truly want to be free. I expect many of the Middle Eastern dictatorships under fire are no more fortunate than Mubarak, but each country’s prospects for democracy are on similarly unsure ground.

In 1848, the people of Europe protested in nearly every major city on the continent. The reactionary governments in charge at the time were, like those of today, unprepared and insensitive to their people’s problems until revolt broke out. France’s terrified King Louis Philippe abdicated, much like the two dictators (so far) who have left their posts in North Africa. King Charles Albert of Piedmont issued a moderate constitution to quell riots. But the military everywhere knew they had the power to repress the revolts if they wanted. Prague was bombarded during its riots, which ended in failure. In Paris, radical republican and socialist protesters were suppressed. Austria’s new constitution was rescinded 1851, two years after its inception. International wars took place. Possibilities for all these occurrences exist in the Middle East.

Historian Robert Wiener explained the initial successes of the revolutions as indicative not of the strength and unity of the protesters but of the weaknesses of the governments they opposed. The protesters were not leaders and did not offer real economic or social programmes. The same might be said for today’s movements. Alexis de Tocqueville feared the revolutions he witnessed on the streets of Paris, because of the violent class struggle they indicated; Karl Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, welcomed them.

Historian GM Trevelyan believed that the revolutions of 1848, the Spring of Nations, failed, because on the surface, nothing changed. Yet, Hans Rothfels, another historian, said that, in fact, the revolutions had major effects: a leveling of inequalities, universal male suffrage, and the understanding throughout society that the people would no longer be held under the thumbs of absolute monarchies. A new generation of leaders took over after 1848. Today, we are witnessing (probably) successful popular uprisings that may or may not bring what the people want. We can take hope from one fact, however. The people of all these places have shown that they will not simply put up with anything anymore. Like in 1848, some things will change: formerly unresponsive governments will need to sit up and take notice, and foreign powers will benefit less by choosing sides and propping up corrupt regimes. For at least a generation to come, the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and probably everywhere else that is in turmoil right now, will speak of the time when they rose up against their masters, and they will do it again if pushed.

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