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Today’s Middle East: 1848 Redux?

Will the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East give way to a counterrevolutionary movement that rolls back its reforms?

September 28, 2012

Will the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East give way to a counterrevolutionary movement that rolls back its reforms?

When the German democrat Georg Herwegh addressed a multinational crowd at a public meeting in Paris in March 1848, he and his audience were celebrating a revolution in France that had just toppled the last French king, Louis-Philippe, and established a republic.

They were also aware that the French Revolution of 1848 was inspiring further insurrections all across Europe. That year was a “domino” revolution — a wave of upheavals, similar in aims and broadly sharing the same causes, which spread rapidly from one country to another.

Interest in such revolutionary waves has, of course, been rekindled by the Arab Awakening of 2011. Commentators have frequently drawn parallels with the “color” revolutions of the last decade in the former Soviet Union, as well as with the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and with the global protests of 1968.

But can’t one go back further, as far back as 1848, when a surge of liberal revolutions cascaded across Europe? These events toppled authoritarian regimes (usually absolute monarchies) from Paris to Krakow — and from Berlin to Palermo.

The swirling revolutions aroused hopes for civil rights and constitutional government. National liberation and unification became a common cause among peoples still chafing under the rule of the multinational empires of the East: Austria, Russia and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which ruled much of the Balkans.

Then, as now, observers were particularly struck, even overawed, by the speed with which the revolutions spread from one country to another. This, in turn, led to discussions about the role of modern communications.

The political revolutions of 1848 were energized by a wave of technological revolutions: the train, the steamboat and, though still rare, the telegraph. In a similar manner, Facebook and Twitter energized those of 2011.

They galvanized the uprisings alongside longer-standing forms of sociability or networking. Reading clubs, universities and scientific congresses were political proving grounds in 1848.

The springboards for protest in 2011 included market squares, the workplace, cafés and Friday prayers. These overlaid the role of more frankly revolutionary organizations like Giuseppe Mazzini’s “Young Italy” in 1848 and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011. The term “Arab Spring” recalls not only Prague in 1968, but also the “Springtime of Peoples” in 1848.

Yet, since their initial outbreak, the Arab revolutions have diverged from those of 1848. It is rare to find an historian who would argue that, overall, 1848 was anything but a failure.

There were notable achievements: the democratic mobilization of ordinary people who previously had never had a political voice, the emancipation of the serfs in Central Europe, the abolition of slavery in the French Empire, and the establishment of constitutional government in some important states, such as Prussia in Germany and Piedmont in Italy.

Yet by year’s end, the liberal, revolutionary regimes had been rooted out and destroyed by a dramatic resurgence of the same conservative forces that had been defeated only months earlier — a domino counterrevolution.

Only some tough, heroic pockets of resistance held out into 1849 in Italy (Rome and Venice, for example), in Hungary, and in Germany’s Rhineland.

The results in 2011 are decidedly more mixed, even if the differences are sometimes subtle. Where elections have taken place in the Arab states, the new political order has already outstripped the lifespan of the liberal regimes created in 1848.

In 2011, as in 1848, some of the authoritarian regimes that were convulsed by unrest either held on, as in Bahrain, or they fought for their life and engulfed their people in civil war, as the Libyans and Syrians know all too well (albeit, so far, with very different results).

So in September 2012, the postrevolutionary political landscape is far more varied in the Middle East than it was at the same chronological point in Europe.

There, by September 1849, the final embers of revolutionary resistance had already been stamped out and most of the countries affected were under monarchical rule more centralized — and more authoritarian — than before.

This is not just an exercise for historians: Europe’s experience in 1848 can help explain why the consequences of the Arab Awakening have been so varied. For Western observers, the most obvious of the overarching factors is the international context.

The civil war in Syria rages on partly because the world’s great powers are rancorously divided over the fate of the uprising and of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The revolution in Egypt elicited belated, distant and often lukewarm reactions abroad. That reticence probably favored Hosni Mubarak’s opponents as they tipped him from the presidential seat.

The conflict in Libya, on the other hand, brought in European airpower that shifted the balance decisively in favor of Muammar Qaddafi’s opponents, led by the National Transitional Council.

The reactions of the great powers in 1848 were just as varied, but with one crucial difference: all the most important interventions served to stymie the revolutionary momentum, or to crush it altogether.

When the Germans and Danes fought over the border territories of Schleswig and Holstein, it unleashed waves of revolutionary, patriotic fervor on both sides.

But it also triggered intense diplomatic pressure from Britain, Russia and Sweden to stop the war. They feared that the conflict would disrupt strategically vital commerce and communications between the Baltic and the North Sea.

When the German Parliament in Frankfurt ratified the armistice, there was a violent uprising in the city, the intensity of which shocked many Germans and gave momentum to the conservatives.

In 1849, French troops — sent by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the president elected in the wake of a backlash against the French radicals — crushed the democratic Roman Republic, overcoming its determined defense mounted by Giuseppe Garibaldi.

That same year, the Russians poured troops into Hungary to help Austria’s Habsburg Emperor destroy its liberal regime and to tether the country once again to rule from Vienna.

Internal developments were just as powerful, if not more so. In 1848, the most corrosive solvent of the incipient liberal regimes was internal civil strife and interethnic conflict.

In Paris, the bloody tragedy of the June Days pitted republican against republican, when a socialist-inspired insurrection was crushed by moderates who battered, bayoneted and shot their way through the barricades.

This spasm had its violent equivalents in Berlin and Vienna. Such brutal divisions among the revolutionaries fatally weakened the revolution itself. The Middle East has not (yet) witnessed violent strife on such a scale among the victors of the original revolutionary Springtime.

Equally fatal — and far more widespread in 1848 — was ethnic conflict, particularly in central and eastern Europe: Germans fought with Danes and Poles, and Magyars fought with Romanians, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Austrians.

The conflicts in Hungary were especially damaging, because they arose among subjects of the same overarching polity, Austria’s Habsburg Empire, which held sway over eleven different nationalities.

The existence of such fierce dissension within this multinational space gave the imperial family and its supporters in Vienna a golden opportunity to “divide and rule.” By pitting the different ethnic groups against each other, it did manage to destroy the 1848 revolutions.

The counterrevolutionary reaction that emerged was bloody but triumphant — even though it really just postponed the real day of reckoning by another six or so decades.

A better chance for lasting reform

In terms of intensity, the full horrors of internal conflict have been visited on the Middle East. It does have an 1848 character of despair to it.

The divisions within the Libyan revolution split along tribal lines. In Syria, Bashad al-Assad’s core Shia supporters are holding out against the primarily Sunni opposition, at great human cost. There have been sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt.

And yet, the conditions are different. For one, there is no longer any overarching empire that might play one nationality off against the other, as there was with the Habsburg monarchy in 1848.

More importantly, where tribal or religious conflict has broken out in the Middle East, the ruling group has been so closely identified with one side or another that it could not play the “Habsburg card” of divide and rule.

That requires being seen, like the Habsburg Emperor, as somehow “above” such divisions. In Libya, the very opposite happened: Muammar Qaddafi was unable to follow his usual, adept strategy of balancing tribal aspirations and rivalries as one after another turned against him.

In Syria, Assad probably cannot divide and rule along sectarian lines because his otherwise secular Ba’ath regime draws support from the country’s Shias and is backed by Shia Iran. That, combined with international inertia (in stark contrast to Libya), means that the war looks set follow its tragic course for a while yet.

This issue overlaps with the question of leadership, which in turn goes to the heart of a problem faced by all revolutionary regimes: legitimacy. In 2011, heads of state were forced from office in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

In the case of Libya, Qaddafi was not just overthrown, he captured and shot dead in October 2011. In Egypt, an ailing Hosni Mubarak was tried and sentenced to life in prison in June of this year.

Nothing analogous occurred in Europe in 1848. The last king of France, Louis-Philippe, was sent scurrying into exile, and in a couple of states in Germany (Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt) the rulers abdicated — but in favor of their heirs.

The fact that 1848 did not entail, in most places, a complete change of regime from the very top downwards meant two things. First, the revolution and the monarchs presented conflicting sources of political legitimacy fighting for the loyalties of the people.

Against the liberal ideologies of the revolutionaries, many people still regarded the monarch as a paternal figure, their protector against the depredations of their landlords, some of whom were precisely the same people trying to achieve constitutions and national freedom.

In the Habsburg Empire, one of the great victories of 1848 was to abolish serfdom where it still existed. Yet those very decrees were issued from Vienna by the Emperor, a move aimed deliberately at trumping the liberal revolutionaries, who moved too slowly on the issue.

The peasants therefore voted accordingly and supported counterrevolutionary candidates in the elections which the liberals had hoped would legitimize their new order.

In the Middle East, by contrast, the revolutionaries held the ideological ace: irrespective of how much Westerners and Arab secularists are anxious about the Muslim Brotherhood and its victory in Egypt’s elections, Islam has provided an ideological continuity which reaches deeply into the region’s past.

Islam might thus transcend both particular regimes, which come and go, and the role of any one individual, like a dictator. It therefore gives the new order a legitimizing, ideological foundation with which the old autocracies simply could not hope to compete.

Second, Europe’s monarchies in 1848 were usually left in control of the military, so they could marshal their forces and strike back at the opportune moment.

An important example of this was in Prussia, where the King and the newly elected parliament in Berlin clashed over control of the army. The King won and used the same forces to crush the liberals shortly afterwards.

In Egypt, by comparison, the new president Mohammed Morsi has — for now — been able to assert the authority of the elected, civil government over the army, beginning with the dismissal of potentially troublesome commanders.

The world may not have seen a wholesale destruction of the old order in the Arab states in 2011. But the changes at the top, the international context, the ideological underpinnings of the revolutions and even, perversely, the local dynamics of sectarian and tribal divisions may ultimately give the new regimes a better chance for wide-ranging and lasting reform than Europe’s “Forty-Eighters” ever had.


In the Arab states, the new political order has already outstripped the lifespan of the liberal regimes created in 1848.

Europe's experience of 1848 can help explain why the consequences of Arab Awakening have been so varied.

The civil war in Syria rages on partly because the world's great powers are divided over the fate of the uprising.

The 1848 revolutions did not entail, in most places, a complete change of regime from the very top downwards.

Islam might transcend both particular regimes, which come and go, and the role of any one individual, like a dictator.