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Contentions

Will Today’s Middle East Revolutionaries Learn from the Past?

Anne Applebaum has a thought-provoking column in the Washington Post comparing the revolutions now transpiring in the Arab world to the revolutions of 1848 — a comparison I have also noted. No historical analogy is perfect,  but it is worth spinning this one out a bit to gain some perspective on the events of the moment. Jonathan Tobin has already commented on it; here’s my take.

One strand of 1848 was nationalism — the desire of Germans, Hungarians, Italians, and others to live in a nation-state instead of as part of a multi-national empire. That ideology, which has proved the most powerful in the world in the past two centuries, swept across the Middle East many decades ago. Its great champion was Gamal Abdel Nasser. He combined pan-Arab nationalism with socialist economics in a seductive if half-baked stewed. The appeal of Nasserism had waned by the late 1970s, when states that followed his prescriptions, including his own Egypt, had proved unable to deliver either prosperity or a military defeat of the Arabs’ hated foe — Israel.

The year 1979 saw the flowering of Islamism as a powerful political force across the region. That Islamist wave has still not crested, but it is now colliding with another powerful idea — democracy. It appears to me that the liberal, democratic impulses that swept Europe in 1848 have finally reached the Arab world in a decisive way. Clearly, that is the message being heard on the streets of Benghazi, Tunis, Cairo, and Manama: in all those places, protesters are demanding not the imposition of a theocracy or the dismantlement of West Bank settlements or the end of the U.S. presence in the region, but rather the creation of governments accountable to their own people.

Even many Islamists, such as Yusuf Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric and Al Jazeera star who has spent decades in exile only to return a few days ago to preach to hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square, speak publicly about the need for more democratic governance. Whether they mean it remains an open question, but they are certainly talking the talk — as opposed to other Islamists, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, who publicly warn against any government based on popular consent rather than the will of God.

Eighteen forty-eight contains a powerful cautionary tale about what happens next. In the succeeding decades, conservatives such as Bismarck and Cavour managed to hijack the nationalist impulses that in 1848 were associated primarily with liberal movements led by the likes of Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Kossuth. Conservative statesmen managed to turn nationalism into a tool of dictatorship and aggression. There is a similar danger today that Islamists will hijack the democratic desires of the Arab street and twist them into a tool of — again — dictatorship and aggression.

But while that danger is real, so is the opportunity that we are seeing today to shake up a deeply diseased status quo. Already the revolutionaries of 2011 have accomplished more than their forebears in 1848 by toppling tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt if not yet the systems of tyranny they created. Another autocrat — Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi — appears to be living on borrowed time. We can only hope that today’s radicals have learned from the mistakes of the past and will avoid the pitfalls encountered by states as disparate as Wilhelmine Germany and Khomeinist Iran. If they do, this year has the potential to be much more significant than 1848.