The Arab Spring is looking more like 1848
than 1989

In Egypt, President Muhammad Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood) was ousted by the military in a coup which took place following days of protests across the country calling for Morsi’s resignation.

His crime? The betrayal of Egypt’s revolution which had seen Hosni Mubarak, the country’s despotic ruler, overthrown after 20 years as president and which had ushered in the first truly democratic elections in the country’s history which saw Morsi and the Egyptian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood emerge triumphant in the presidential and parliamentary elections, respectfully.

Despite his democratic mandate, which Morsi was keen to remind his fellow Egyptians of right up until he was overthrown, his behaviour appeared to become less democratic and more autocratic as time went by.

Among the concerns of the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square to demand Morsi’s resignation were the President’s attempt to grant himself sweeping powers, including immunity from judicial review, and the attempts by Muslim Brotherhood members of the Constitutional Assembly to produce a draft constitution enthused with Islamism. In the minds of the protesters, and eventually the army, this pharaoh in the making simply had to go.

As former President Morsi languishes under house arrest and as the military tries to restore order to a country rocked by pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrations, many people in Egypt and elsewhere are pondering what is next for a country that has seen despotism, democracy and now another round of military rule all within a few years.

In trying to look forward to the future, a useful exercise is often to look back to the past, in order to try and find clues as to how current events might play out, which are hidden in events which have previously occurred. In other words, perhaps a history lesson is in order.

It is early spring. People from across several different nations are on the march, protesting against what they see as repressive, illiberal governments. Reforms are promised, constitutions are drafted, rulers resign, regimes fall and new ones rise in their place. The event is hailed as a ‘Springtime of the Peoples’.

If you are surprised at how familiar this may seem to you, then don’t be, because it should. What should surprise you, however, is that the above is not a brief narrative of the Arab Spring. The events just described took place over 150 years ago. The year was 1848 and the place was Europe.

Rebellion and revolution swept the continent in the year 1848. Uprisings occurred in France, where King Louis-Phillippe was forced to abdicate, the various kingdoms and dukedoms which make up modern Germany, the Habsburg Empire which covers modern day Austria, Hungary, Croatia and others, to name just a small number. There were even demonstrations in Britain.

You may be wondering what the point of this exercise is, other than to point out a few similarities between events that are largely unconnected. But there is a deeper point, which will become apparent when we find out how the story of 1848 ends.

Sadly, 1848 does not have a happy ending. Autocratic monarchy did not give way to liberal democracy in Europe as the protesters had hoped. Most of the uprisings were violently crushed, the hopes of German unification and independence for ethnic minorities under Habsburg rule were dashed.

After a brief period as the ‘Second Republic’, France soon found itself under the rule of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, or Napoleon III as he is known to history, and was restyled as the ‘Second French Empire’. Most of the reforms proposed and enacted by rulers such as Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in a desperate attempt to appease the demands of the protesters were quietly discarded as opposition movements collapsed.

What does this tell us, then, about the possible outcome of the Arab Spring, and in particular how events in Egypt may unfold in the coming months and years? As an example of how episodes such as the Arab Spring tend to unfold, 1848 is certainly instructive, although the two events have their differences.

Unlike today, there was no condemnation from the international community (largely because the vast majority of the world’s great powers were the ones whose people were in revolt), and consequently there were certainly no attempts on the part of the great powers to intervene by assisting the rebels.

Ironically, Russia was the major power to intervene, and as Putin’s Russia does today, the Russia of  Czar Nicholas I sided with the governments of the countries in question, not the rebels.

As an overall outcome, it seems that Egyptian politics could well follow a trajectory reminiscent of 1848. Their autocratic ruler was overthrown, promises of democratic and constitutional reform were made and then appeared to be dashed, and the country now finds itself under the rule of a military junta, albeit with an interim president and prime minister appointed, which is currently trying to break up pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrations, shooting many of the protesters in the process.

It is, however, unwise to be deterministic about how future events may unfold. If a silver lining to this ominous dark cloud which now gathers over the Middle East could be offered, it is that the Arab Spring could well follow the trajectory of a much more recent European revolution, that of 1989, in which the collapse of the Soviet Union saw a relatively peaceful transition to democracy in most of the countries concerned.

The problem in Egypt and the Arab world lies largely in how their politics, for the most part since many of the these countries’ independence, has been conducted.

In Egypt the military has had a strong influence in politics arguably since the days of Colonel Nasser, with many of Nasser’s successors coming from the military itself, including Mubarak. The army is therefore used to having a large say in Egyptian politics, a say that it will not give up very easily.

The people of Egypt are also sharply divided, not only ethnically and religiously, but politically. The Muslim Brotherhood (and Islamist groups in general) have for a long time been viewed with suspicion. For most of the time from Colonel Nasser to the fall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and Islamist groups would often resort to extreme ways of making their point, among which included the assassination of President Sadat in 1981 by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

More fundamentally, Egypt lacks the basic institutions needed in order for democracy and freedom to flourish. The government, and the army for that matter, is still a huge economic player, controlling a large amount of assets. If Egypt is to have the economic recovery it so desperately needs, the government’s relationship with the economy will have to change, and quickly.

Most importantly of all, however, Egypt lacks the rule of law. It has never had a government which has truly regarded itself as answerable to, as opposed to above, the law. Unfortunately for Egypt, old habits die hard. But, if the Egyptians are to embark on the path towards democracy, their governments must learn the importance of the rule of law. Without it, a transition to a democratic arrangement will simply not be possible, and the sight of the Egyptian army on the streets of Cairo will become an all the more regular occurrence.

If this strikes the reader as a pessimistic view of how events in Egypt are likely to unfold, then it is worth bearing in mind that all of this does not necessarily mean that Egypt will never make the transition to democratic rule. The process could hypothetically start tomorrow, if Egypt’s leaders were willing to enact the correct reforms and see them through.

At present, however, it is unlikely that this will happen in the short term. Just as in Europe in 1848, the Arab Spring seems unlikely to be followed by a transition to liberal democracy anytime soon. It appears, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the French Revolution, that “[They] have simply placed the head of liberty upon the body of subjection.”