Thursday, February 24, 2011

Spring Time of the (Arab) Peoples

Anyone who has followed my blog with respect to the recent wave of unrest in the Arab world, must have realized that I tend to liken the current it to a very important hinge-point in European and world history, the popular revolutions of 1848 otherwise knows as 'Spring Time of the Peoples'. In that year, a wave of popular unrest swept most of the continent after a successful revolution toppled the French constitutional monarchy.

Robert Zaretsky, a Texas based history professor, also likes this analogy:

The dead weight of brutal and autocratic rulers; a young and professional middle class deprived not just of liberty, but jobs; a deep and persistent economic crisis; and a revolution in communications that renders traditional borders obsolete and, finally, the bursting of the dam that unleashes a surge of revolution that sweeps across a continent: these conditions describe not only North Africa and the Middle East today, but Europe in 1848. If nations from Tunisia to Bahrain are, in fact, reviving the so-called “springtime of peoples”, the winter of political disenchantment may not be far away.
The backgrounds to the two series of revolutions are eerily similar. The Great Recession of recent memory was a blip compared to the economic depression, known as the “hungry years,” that flattened Europe in the 1840s. Disastrous harvests pushed up grain prices across Europe; city dwellers, spending more on food, bought fewer commodities; industrial and commercial activity slowed to a near standstill.

Other parallels are remarkable. From the newfound means of rapid communications as well as the symbolic gestures that initiated it to how it spread from one country to another. While in France the Second Republic was hastily proclaimed, other countries in Europe took differing paths. The absolute monarchy was over, but an era of consensual democracy was not the result:

But here the parallels between the rest of Europe and Paris end. France was the only country that succeeded in actually toppling its monarch; elsewhere, thrones were rocked, but never fell. Kings instead retreated and watched while the protesters, now given the opportunity to govern, instead squabbled amongst themselves. This was hardly a recipe for holding onto power, especially as their countries still faced dire economic problems. Within short order, the Houses of Habsburg and Hohenzollern exploited this confusion and regained power. For the all those who lived east of the Rhine, the springtime of peoples was over scarcely before it began.
Even the French Second Republic eventually succumbed to the lure of authoritarian rule. Following the infamous June Days, when republican guardsmen shot and killed more than 4,000 protesters denouncing the government’s decision to end unemployment insurance. Six months later, to the horror of republicans, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, won the presidential elections. Republicans fears were soon confirmed when Louis Napoleon overthrew the republic and declared himself emperor. In a national referendum, eight of ten Frenchmen signed off on the change from Republic to Empire.
The revolution of 1848 in France was crushed by a new kind of authoritarian regime that had the wit to exploit the language of populism, wiliness to co-opt potential opponents and will to crush those who refused to fall into line. It is, of course, too early to say if conditions in Egypt, for example, will encourage a “Bonapartist” solution. But it is not too early to recall Tocqueville’s observation, made after Bonaparte had buried the Republic: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”
In Germany, then in the control of the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty, it led to the eventual rise of masterful political tactician and skilled populist demagogue, Bismarck.  It led to a rise of a new kind of national identity. A nationalism that led the people feel that they are, or should be, in charge of the affairs of state. The masses wanted to be in charge of the affairs of state, to decide when the nation goes to war with others.

Unfortunately, the masses are quite often a poor judge. The next hundred years were not even remotely peaceful and it took the horrors of the Second World War to finally usher an era of consensual democracy and individual rights to the heart of the continent.

If we were to learn anything from history, we would learn that the new, democratic Egypt could potential a very radical, populist Egypt that choses to go to war with its neighbors. It is often said that the modern Middle East is composed of artificial states, whose borders were drawn by external powers. National identity in the Middle East was often limited to the presidential palace or to the ruling dynasty.

But wasn't the Austro-Hungarian Empire equally as artificial? It's borders were drawn by a few powerful families that were often quite removed from their own 'street'. It was composed of Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Serbs, Gypsies and Jews. Most of whom felt very strongly about their ethnic identity and often felt little warm feelings for the emperor. When everything was said and done, each one of those groups ended up carving a slice of the world as its own national homeland.

What we can expect from the Middle East is the replacement of fairly stable autocracies with populist, radical states, often with internal schism based on ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations. The question is whether the west, which already went through the schism can somehow guide the Arab world to stability without going through the type of conflicts that ravaged Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?


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