The Blog

The Ghost of Revolution Past Haunts the Arab Spring

A protest begins in January in a small country over domestic conditions and democratic rights. Within months large neighbouring states are also in revolt, challenging the oppressive forces that dominate them.

A protest begins in January in a small country over domestic conditions and democratic rights. Within months large neighbouring states are also in revolt, challenging the oppressive forces that dominate them. A spring of promise fades into a summer of conflict, which drags on into an autumn of defeat. The Arab Spring, you think? Wrong, this is Europe 1848.

The failed revolutions of 1848 remain the most powerful example of what can happen if protests are allowed to stagnate. Those that began with protests in Italy in January and soon spread to France appeared set to alter the shape of European politics forever. A coalition of working and middle-class protesters rose up against their leaders demanding fair prices and democratic rights. In February, the French King Louis Philippe was gone and the Second French Republic formed. For months the traditional forms of European authority looked to be crumbling.

Yet it was not to be. Within a year those same autocrats pushed back the protesters, who were undermined by a lack of direction and unity. The 1848 revolutions were called a 'turning point in modern history where history failed to turn'. The revolution was finally put to bed four years later in 1852 when the French monarchy returned.

The lessons of 1848 seem all the starker as we witness the pre-Arab Spring status quo creeping back in.

In Egypt the freedoms enjoyed following the fall of Mubarak are again threatened by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has reasserted its dominance, suppressing dissent. The much-maligned Emergency Law, which the new government promised to rescind, remains in place. Bloggers and activists who cheered Mubarak's demise have found themselves less free than before February 11th, with a number arrested in recent months. Mubarak, it seems, was a straw man, propped up as a hate figure to deflect criticism of the more-powerful forces behind him.

While this may change after the coming elections it may not. As an intellectual I met last week stressed, it is important to recognise the stake held in Mubarak's rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, now widely predicted to become the biggest party in elections. They had existing, albeit fluctuating, relations with the regime and its security services, and will almost certainly rely on those links if they are to win power in elections later this year. It is noticeable that the Brotherhood has sided with the military more often than not in recent weeks.

In Libya, major change in the regime is imminent. Yet there are concerns, which I have raised before, about the type of government the National Transitional Council is planning. A population divided into different tribes also makes it harder to reach a consensus.

Similarly Libya's new government knows that the country's revolution was only secured with the help of international forces. This does not come without conditions: France, the UK and the US will want something back for rescuing the rebels in Benghazi. More oftenthan not, the priority of the West has been oil not democracy in the Middle East.

Against all the odds, in Yemen President Saleh looks set to return from exile in Saudi. His injuries, incurred during the attack on the Presidential building, appear to have slowed dissent and saved his life. Likewise Syria, Bahrain and Algeria appear to be falling into the 'nearly revolutionary' category.

There are continued reasons to believe that these revolutions will not be like Europe 1848. Believers argue that new technologies that enable protesters in Tunisia to communicate in seconds with those in Syria mean that, while the pace of revolution may slacken, lasting change is unavoidable.

Yet those protesting in the region should carry three of the lessons of 1848 with them. First, beware of the spotlight fading. In February the Arab Spring dominated the Western media, Al Jazeera ran constant coverage and all eyes were on the Middle East. Now the issue is becoming sidelined, with the global economic crisis, Western domestic politics and even the Palestinian UN bid forcing it down the running order.

The initial excitement felt for the protests is likely to wane further as the year drags on. No longer the darlings of the international media, the protesters will have to force change on their own.

Secondly, it is easy to unite around a common enemy; much harder to create a new world afterwards. In the early period of 1848, working and middle-class movements spoke as one in their common hatred of the system, only for major differences to emerge later. This division allowed the traditional elites a reprieve. Divisiveness will lead to failure; clear definition on practicable and meaningful goals is needed.

And thirdly, beware of the straw man; the fall of a tyrant does not automatically bring about real change. Michael Young has expressed this very eloquently but unless the systems of governance are fundamentally altered, a change at the top means nothing. In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other countries where leaders may topple, so too must the clientelist, patronage-based systems that are the real enemies of the people of the Middle East.

If the protesters of 2011 carry around the lessons of 1848 with them they can attempt to avoid the pitfalls that befell their revolutionary predecessors. If not they are in danger of wasting the once in a lifetime opportunity.

As the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, talking during the 1848 revolutions, said: "I want it to be a dedicated and earnest revolution because I want it to be the last. I know that only dedicated revolutions endure. A revolution which stands for nothing, which is stricken with sterility from its birth, which destroys without building, does nothing but give birth to subsequent revolutions."