Across the continent, crowds fill the streets with banners proclaiming revolution, while troops sent to repress them either stand aside or swell their ranks. The region seems to ignite despite the lack of coordination between revolutionaries in different countries.
Behind all of this social upheaval are a variety of factors: widespread dissatisfaction with authoritarian leadership, combined with a growing middle-class desire for greater political rights and participation. While this middle class revolution of lawyers, professors and doctors spoke of political reform, the multitudes in the squares and streets were the urban poor and unemployed, squeezed between the elites and army who controlled the economy and markets. Succouring these masses were suppressed ideological groups, seeking to impose radical designs in place of the old regime.
While one might be forgiven for assuming this to be a description of the Arab Spring, it could just as easily be a description of the Revolutions of 1848, also known as ‘the Spring of Nations’, which took place across the European continent in that year, and threatened to overturn the long-standing Conservative Order established by Clemens von Metternich.
In trying to shape a policy response to the ‘Arab Spring’, Western governments have struggled to understand the roots and origins of the social movements which overturned authoritarian regimes in Tunis and Cairo, and which look set to topple regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. There seem to be a myriad of quantifiable root causes – a long history of authoritarian repression, oligarchic control of public good and services, the inflow of information about the outside world though the internet, a large population under the age of 25 (60%), a failed welfare system, and mass unemployment, (23% in Egypt according to the International Labour Organization).
There also seems to be a myriad of quantifiable processes by which the Arab populations were able mobilize their anger and frustration – technology in the form of written and online media, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, and Al Jazeera. As with 1848, the four common factors that see societies mobilize against repressive regimes after long periods of docility are (1) the development of political conscious middle and working classes, (2) social tensions caused by economic inequality, (3) new mass communications technologies, and (4) the dissemination of political and economic ideas through these technologies. Western governments that wish to understand the Arab future might look at their own not-so-distant past.
The idea that history repeats itself is a cliché. However, few modern policy-makers today consider history in their analysis. In trying to fully understand a polity, one should base one’s analysis simultaneously on three levels: structural, historical and individual.
Structural assessment involves understanding the basic programming of how human societies react to a given stimuli, for example how societies react to new communication methods, like Facebook. This involves understanding the commonalities between various human societies or political structures, and the commonalities in complex human behaviour.
Historical assessment involves understanding how a particular polity has behaved throughout its history, or how it has reacted to trends or events. This might include how the Arab world reacted to decolonization in the 1950s or how Egyptian politics reacted to the assassination of President Sadat in 1981.
Finally, one should study a given polity’s leadership, the character and composition of its decision-makers and culture of its political parties. Naturally, when reading political literature on the Middle East it is more interesting to study the impact of Kissinger on US policy-making in the 1960s, or on the Ba’ath Party in Syria, than how societies have, say, adapted to industrialization. The stories of individuals and groups are easier to comprehend then the stories of societies.
The trick for modern policy-makers, struggling to come to terms with the Arab Spring and what it means, is to look for similarities within the structural factors of 1848 and 2011; the human need for political representation after a certain economic threshold is reached, the reaction of conservative societies to liberal ideas, the radicalism of societies with a large percentage of young people, and the appeal of ideology, Liberal, Muslim or Marxist, for the disenfranchised.
Analysts should note the differences too, such as the fact that 1848 Europe was at the beginning of an industrial revolution that would give it economic primacy across the globe. The Arab continent at the start of 2012, by contrast, is in a much weaker position, have only its energy economy to compete with the old developed economies of Europe and North America and the new economies of developing giants in Asia, and at a time when austerity grips international markets.
How will fledgling democracies react to these economic pressures? Are they more likely to get into conflict, as political elites search for external enemies to distract unhappy citizens, or lead to a polarization within the body politic? What particular to Egyptian and Tunisian history should stand out for the analyst? Should the legacy of British or French colonialism be considered or the relationship between Coptic Christians and Muslims? Finally, one should study the personalities of the Generals who make up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and other influentials like Muslim Brotherhood General Leader Mohammed Badie and democracy advocate Mohamed El Baradei.
It is not enough to say that each civilization is different from its peers, or that each epoch can or is able to remake the rules of the game. It is not arrogance to assume that structural factors reveal themselves in history, or that Western history might provide lessons for those seeking to understand recent events in the Arab world. Nor is it arrogance to say that certain liberal values – commonly ascribed to the West – can be adapted by other cultures. Tell that to a pro-democracy advocate in Burma or a South Korean lawmaker. What is remarkable about the story of 1848 and 2011 is the fact that how such different societies are affected in such a similar way by the same ideas, and how they continue to run through the veins of international political society.