Europe, the Arab Spring and 1848

Published on 26 August 2013 at 13:44

At the start of the “Arab Spring” many European observers drew comparisons between the uprisings against authoritarian regimes of North Africa and the Middle East to those that brought about the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe in 1989. They were hoping to see a wave of democratisation and development sweep the Arab world, powered by a new generation of youth inspired by western values.

As noted by the Egyptian Deputy General Director of the IMF, Nemat Shafik, in May 2012, the difference is that in 1989 “the world economy was booming, Europe was keen to embrace the transition countries by providing a policy anchor through membership of the European Union, and external finance was readily available.” The transition of the Arab countries is taking place in a more difficult context. According to Ms Shafik, without an “Economic Spring” to accompany the political renewal, the Arab reforms will be doomed to failure; and yet the weight of far-reaching changes weighs heavily on the already empty coffers of these unstable countries.

After the bloody return to power of the Egyptian military, the failure has become obvious to all. The situation at the moment seems rather similar to that other great revolutionary cycle that failed – “the spring of the people” of 1848, as pointed out in particular by Robert D Kaplan and Jonathan Steinberg.

Among the notable points that the two major events have in common there is, however, one that has gone unnoticed: in both cases, an upheaval crowns a long process of rebalancing between old and new economic, political and social systems. In 1848, bourgeois capitalism on its way up was trying to overthrow the feudal system and affirm a model based on parliamentary democracy and liberalism. In 2011, the economic crisis broke out at the end of a long phase of attrition and obsolescence in authoritarian regimes that dated back to the Cold War. The middle class that ought to have supported establishing a western-style model, however, was too small and too enfeebled by its own crisis. The momentum then passed into the hands of the Islamists, who, instead of suffering from the economic hardships, emerged from them strengthened.

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As in the middle of the 19th Century, our own time is not ripe, and Islamist movements are going back into hiding from the current wave of protests. The Gulf countries, which tried to ride the wave, soon grasped its true scope and decided to stand in for Europe and the United States as sponsor of the authoritarian policemen of the regional order. Also, considering the $12bn (€8.8bn) available to the Egyptian generals, the meagre aid put on ice by the European Union as a “strong symbolic response” shows, in an almost ridiculous way, how the role of Europe on the far shore of the Mediterranean is now laughable.

To reap the benefits of a spring of democracy and development, Europe should have sown the seeds when times were favourable and backed the main players in the movement, rather than be divided over some questions of complicity with corrupt dictatorial regimes and vain initiatives like the Union for the Mediterranean. Now it’s too late. The Arab Spring is probably coming to its end. However, as happened after 1849, the historical dynamics that drove it will continue on their way underground. The sheiks do not have the money to solve the structural problems of the Arab countries, and the settling of accounts with the Islamist movements has merely been postponed. Europeans need not fret, though: we no longer have any role to play in the story there.

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