The Arabs' 1848

Europe's century of upheaval—and the revolutions in the middle of them—offer insights into the post–Arab Spring world.

The Arab upheaval has been the cause of profound bewilderment in the developed world and among policy makers, not least in Washington. Great enthusiasm for the Arab Spring was quickly replaced by confusion and concern regarding Islamic democracy or an Islamist Winter, depending on one's perspective. This was as quickly supplanted by disconcert and despair in the face of military takeovers and ferocious civil wars. The European revolutions of 1848, the 'Spring of Nations', with their great hopes and dashed dreams, have often been cited as an analog. But indeed, what can the European experience of modernization and regime change during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries teach us about the contemporary Arab world? History does not quite repeat itself, as differences of conditions, place and time are as significant as similarities. Still, history is the best we have got.

What makes nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the current Middle East similar is their relative position on the road to modernization. According to the most authoritative estimates, by Angus Maddison, real GDP per capita in non-oil producing Arab countries is in the same range as mid- to late-nineteenth-century Europe (roughly one-tenth of today's affluent world). Urbanization rates in Egypt and Syria are, respectively, just below and above 50 percent, a level crossed by the United Kingdom around 1850 and by Germany around 1900. Illiteracy in the major Arab countries still hovers between 20 to 30 percent (greater among women than men), again in the same range as in mid-nineteenth century Europe (with the exception of the continent's highly literate northern countries).

While these major indicators are of fundamental significance, differences remain that should also be factored in. Whereas nineteenth-century Europe and the West were the world's pioneers and world leaders in modernization, today's Arab countries are among the world's strugglers, with only Africa trailing behind. Because of this, the Arab world enjoys many of the fruits of modernization as imports from outside—in communications, household appliances, computers, medicine and the like. This also means that the Arab world is susceptible to pressures from the hegemonic developed world—most notably economic, partly military, and, more ambivalently, intellectual—even if the efficacy of such pressures is inherently limited. Finally, there are all the differences of culture and historical traditions, for, as we know, the process of modernization, while most powerful and deeply transformative, is far from being linear.

In pursuing our comparison and analysis, the following key concepts will serve as our prisms: democracy, liberalism, development, nationalism, religion, and stability.


The call for democracy has reigned supreme in the enthusiasm that surrounded the Arab Spring and the fall of the Old Regimes throughout much of the Middle East. It remains the strong expectation of Western opinion and the official demand by Western governments, most notably that of the United States. In today's West, democracy is perceived as the ultimate ideal and political norm, unconditioned by extraneous circumstances. But in reality, rather than democracy being an abstract, timeless idea waiting to be recognized and adopted by right-minded people, its successful implementation has always depended on and closely correlated with a number of developmental factors variably embedded in the process of modernization.

Thus it is anything but a coincidence that democracy on a large countrywide scale has never existed anywhere before modern times. And when it began to unfold in Europe and the West, even among countries that were turning democratic (and many countries were not), full democratization only arrived during the last decades of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries. This was a protracted and gradual process. In France, for example, breakthroughs to democracy failed, first in 1793-5, and again in 1848-9. Democracy was only achieved with the Third Republic, from 1871-5 on, while women's suffrage was delayed until 1945. In the United Kingdom, the majority of men were given the vote only with the Third Reform Act of 1884, and the expansion and equalization of suffrage among all men and women had to wait until 1918, 1928 and 1948. Developments in the Low Countries and Scandinavia were roughly similar. Even in the United States, with its unique foundations of liberty and relatively affluent estate of free-holders, practically universal white male suffrage was only enacted in the 1820s. Women were enfranchised in 1920, and black voting, despite the post-Civil War constitutional amendments, was secured only in the 1960s. Nonetheless, there is an implicit assumption that the rest of the world should profit from our experience and wisdom, skip all intermediate phases and leap right to the end.