The Challenges of 1848 Reprised in the Middle East Today

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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). Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

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 four percent of the population could vote, and in France about one 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.

One 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 tsar'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 ElBaradei 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 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?

History 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.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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bill farrell - 2/23/2011

This was a good piece as far as it went, but it needed more details and specifics. For example, in Germany, the revolutionaries in the Parliament at Franfurt am Main pushed policies that alienated both the artisans and the peasantry. As a result, they lost their "ground troops." The problems were not grounded merely in ideology.

Elliott Aron Green - 2/21/2011

I agree with most of Roberts' rather common sense argument. But these current Middle Eastern uprisings beg the question of whether they are truly democratic. If democracy is merely majority rule, then you could call them democratic. But if the majority --as is likely in Egypt-- want to be governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has definitely medieval attitudes about non-Muslims based on the Quran, Hadith and other parts of Muslim tradition, then you have an anti-democratic majority.

The Jewish population in Middle Eastern lands, nearly one million in 1950, adds up to just a few thousand today. With the ancient Jewish communities nearly entirely extinct, Islamist hostility is turned toward the Christian minorities in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere.

Could you agree that in 1950, many if not most white Americans might have voted to deny various rights to blacks? If such a vote had been a majority in any state, would you call that vote a democratic majority? Likewise, since the Muslim Brotherhood preaches hate against Jews, Christians, various sorts of social deviants, apostates from Islam, etc., could a majority vote in favor of the MB be considered a vote for democracy? Let's bear in mind that the Middle Eastern reality is more complex than most Western observers seem to realize.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/21/2011

While it's true that "While forcing some minor reforms, the 1848 revolutions yielded no new popularly accountable governments" I think that understates their influence considerably. The 1848 uprisings were the last straw forcing even the most autocratic governments to give lip service to popular will and shifted their role towards the liberal sort of public benefit. Not that they were liberal in a 21st century sense, but the realization that the people needed to be served well by their governments certainly came clearly into focus at that point.