Has there been a time in history where we’ve seen so many popular uprisings against autocratic governments? Right now there are four active uprisings and many more simmering ones across the Arab world. The governments of Tunisia and Egypt have fallen and it looks as though Libya and perhaps Bahrain are standing by to fall. The governments of Yemen and Jordan are doing fast tap dances to prevent their own populations from boiling over into full fledged uprising.
The fact is there was a time when Europe also saw this kind of massive effort on the part of the people to throw off autocratic rule, though it was 163 years ago in the spring of 1848. Across Europe that year there were a series of popular uprisings and revolutions. For the most part they were brutally suppressed but what is interesting is the similarities in causes that brought them about.
The early part of the 19th century had seen a lot of change. One of the biggest was the rise in literacy and the increase of newspapers across the Continent. This allowed faster commutation of ideas and a way for the disaffected to organize.
When one of the largest nations in that part of the world, France, rose up to overthrow the King, showed the people of other nations that something new was possible, if the people insisted on their voice. This realization opened a realm of possibilities that did not only include a monarchy or a very weak form of democracy where only the lords had the franchise.
This combined with sudden economic lapses and crop failures set up the a situation analogous to what we have seen in the Arab world. Today it is the internet and Egypt that have allowed the spread of ideas and proof of concept. It is the same old story of lack of economic opportunity and food prices that have lit the fuse.
Increases in populations in the cities and the rural areas of the time gave provided the foot soldiers for these uprisings just as the growth in young people in the Arab world has done now. Hopefully the outcome will be better.
The revolutions in Europe in the 1840’s did not lead to very many democratic governments at the time. As I said the autocrats (primarily royal families) were not shy about using their military to put down these rebellions. The death toll ran to the tens of thousands.
The changes that were made often fell along lines of nationalism. Such as the German insistence on a unified national government. Unfortunately this call for national unity and liberty did not extend to minority populations and there were few places where full enfranchisement was proposed or adopted.
One of the few nations that avoided uprising at that time was Great Brittan. Having had a universal voting rights bill which passed just two years earlier the people there never had the full head of steam that other nations without this right had.
Ireland did have an uprising, but as with almost all such acts it was brutally suppressed by the superior British Army. Another contributing factor was that the Emerald Isle was still reeling from the Great Famine where fully half the nation had either died or immigrated. With the countryside being emptied of so many people the Young Ireland movement really never had a chance.
The saying from Santayana is:
“Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”
The question is who is doomed and how much repetition is there? It seems that the Arab autocrats are the ones who failed to learn histories lesson on what happens when communication increases and is combined with a rising population.
However the history of the current uprisings’ is still being written. Will they be more successful than their European counterparts? One of the things that have changed in the last 160 plus years is the respect for democracy. At the time of the earlier uprisings there were no long term examples of people governing themselves. The United States was still a baby in terms of nations, and frankly was still more than a bit of a frontier country, at least in the mind of those in Europe.
It is to be earnestly hopped that the internal nationalist fervor and disregard for non-nationals that marked the earlier Peoples Spring are not repeated here. These movements lead to further trouble in Europe long after the uprisings were over.
In the end I think history can only inform so much. When conditions are similar, then you can have similar events, which is why we are seeing these uprisings now, but the end state of rebellions and uprisings has so much to do with the mind set of the leaders and their ability to survive the opinion of the world when they act that perhaps we will not see as much bloody suppression.
In 1848 it was assumed by the various monarchies that when a rebellion happened, whether it was the nobility or the peasantry, you were well within your rights to send in the cannon and cavalry to suppress it. This had been going on for thousands of years (okay, not the cannon). What is new today is that we do not accept that it is right to use this kind of overwhelming military force to keep your population down. That one change alone argues well for the success of these uprisings
Will there be more of this type of unrest in the Arab world? Almost certainly; the conditions for uprising exist everywhere there and the fact of Egypt showing it can be done in a huge and highly militarized nation are all it takes to bring the hope of change, the willingness to stand up for a say in your own governance. Will it end like 1848? Only time can tell.
One bit of housekeeping; There is a very good and detailed book about the 1848 revolutions called “1848 Year of Revolutions” by Mike Rapport. If you are interested in more history of this time, I highly recommend reading it.
The floor is yours!