The Arabs' 1848

April 20, 2014 Topic: Economic Development Region: Middle East

The Arabs' 1848

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

A major liberal right and concern is respect for private property, which interests us in its relation to economic development.


The fear that the propertyless masses would first move to confiscate the property of the rich was foremost in the minds of the bourgeoisie and liberals throughout nineteenth century Europe. Marx famously saw this as the reason why the 1848 Paris revolutionaries, fearful of the growing intrusion of the masses, surrendered the revolution to Louis Napoleon, later Emperor Napoleon III. The popular, economically liberal and variably authoritarian type of regime that he established, in the mode of his great uncle, is known as Bonapartism. The concept was applied to quite a number of rulers and regimes during the twentieth century, including, except for economic liberalism, that of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. It may partly apply to General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in today's Egypt.

Marx had an economically developed Communist society in mind, and his twentieth-century successors also experimented with socialist routes to industrialization and modernization. Thus private property was long a disputed value. However, the crushing failure of the nationalized economies left the capitalist route to modernity and affluence the only credible game around. In nineteenth-century Europe, and in Britain even earlier, capitalist development was virtually imposed on the disenfranchised masses of peasantry and urban poor, who saw little benefit for themselves from the process for generations, until much higher levels of affluence were achieved and the middle class swelled to become the majority. The most successful cases of economic development in the twentieth century, throughout East Asia, were similarly overseen by authoritarian regimes that imposed the process on all sectors of the population. The large majority of these countries eventually democratized after having achieved economic modernization. China is the latest giant of examples for this process at work, whereas democratic India is constantly obliged to placate its backward rural population, which is still the large majority of the population and which has been a hindrance to more rapid modernization.

Economic development tends to be a prerequisite for a successful democracy, and the Arab overall record so far is one of abysmal failure. Unlike in other developing parts of the world, modernization in the Arab world has not taken off. The reasons for this are not easy to pinpoint. In the early twentieth century Max Weber singled out the cultures of both Confucianism and Islam as being detrimental to modernization and economic development. Since then, the spectacular development of East and Southeast Asia has often been credited to the virtues of Confucianism. Cultural traditions are more multifaceted and adaptive than one assumed. The vogue of third-world socialism in its local form of Arab Socialism during the 1950s and 1960s was probably a major disruptive force for economic development in the Arab world. Unlike in India, in the main Arab countries it was coupled with and enforced by the ruthlessness of authoritarianism, which destroyed the urban commercial and entrepreneurial classes that had existed in Baghdad and Basra, Damascus and Halab (Aleppo), Cairo and Alexandria. Local Jews, Christian Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, and Italians, particularly active in this milieu, were pushed out. The result was two generations of economic stagnation. Before 1960, Egypt was better off than South Korea.

Who can be the agent of modernization in the Arab world and kick-start it on the long road from its currently nearly hopeless conditions? Might the change develop in the Arab monarchies, in countries such as Morocco and Jordan that have secured some modest achievements, enjoying traditional legitimacy and espousing development, while allowing limited electoral and parliamentary participation? Or can it be generated by an authoritarian or semiauthoritarian Arab Franco or Pinochet, or a Bonapartist of the type of General Sisi? None of these options looks very promising at the moment. Nor does a third one: a development-oriented, moderate and genuinely democratic Islamic movement. Unlike in nineteenth century Europe, socialism is dead in the Arab world. There is a widespread popular resentment towards the rich, justified where corruption and crony capitalism are rampant, but otherwise detrimental to economic development. Much of this resentment is channeled into support for the Islamic parties, which preach virtue and social justice, and practice grassroots social relief for the poor.


In some ways, political and social Islam resembles political and social Catholicism in nineteenth century Europe. Catholicism organized itself politically in reaction against the forces of secularism, modernity, liberalism and democracy, preached nonworldly virtue and social justice, and practiced social work for the poor. The most significant political party that exemplified the movement was the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum), which was consolidated to defend Catholic rights in Protestant-dominated unified Germany after 1871. Initially cast out by Bismarck, the party became increasingly integrated into the German political system, and became a major partner in the pro-democratic Weimar coalition after World War I. Destroyed by Hitler, it was replaced after World War II by the Christian Democrats, who led Germany back from the abyss and onto the road to democracy, liberalism and economic development. Although it is customary to associate modernization with secularization, nineteenth century Europe saw growing religious piety, conformism and prudishness in many countries, for example in Victorian Britain, partly in response to the dislocation of traditional society and pressures of modernization. This was true of the middle class, as well as among the Labour movement.

Can political Islam travel the same road and be transformed into the Arab and Muslim equivalent of the Zentrum and Christian Democrats? Even if unfamiliar with the historical precedent, this more or less was the hope of the US administration with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. They wished to see a popular, broad-based, democratically elected movement that would increasingly learn to accept democratic procedures, make peace with liberalism and modernity, and embrace economic development. Potentially, this was the most attractive option. However, in Germany the process took generations to mature, as has also been the case with a closer and perhaps more relevant precedent: Turkey.

Modern Turkey is an especially instructive case. Shaped by Kemal Atatürk, with modernization as its supreme aim, it was a model of neither democracy nor liberalism. Kemalist Turkey made the army the guardian of a constitution that imposed secularism and banished Islam from the public sphere, probably against the people's majoritarian sentiments. Freedom of expression was curtailed on similar grounds, Islamic parties were suppressed, and the army repeatedly intervened in politics, removed democratically elected governments from power, and suspended democracy. Only in the 2000s was the mold of the Kemalist state broken, with the rise to power of the popularly based and greatly moderated Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). The party gave up its Islamic brand in favor of 'conservative democracy', is committed to economic development through the market system, and has come to terms with liberalism. The jury is still out on Turkey. But despite the authoritarian and fiery personality of prime minister and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, large-scale liberal demonstrations against some of his initiatives and recent accusations of corruption, the new synthesis might be working, with the country making great strides in terms of socioeconomic development. Still, eighty years of Kemalism may have laid the groundwork for this stage. They stirred Turkey away from a path similar to Pakistan's failed course, and avoided the major Islamist setback that followed the imperial modernizing hubris of the shah in Iran. Might Arab countries in time adopt a route similar to Turkey's, as Erdoğan recommended to the Islamists in Egypt?

Such a development might take time and require a preliminary semiauthoritarian phase, as it did in Turkey. The apocalyptic violent streak that Islamism has developed in recent decades is a major obstacle. So also is Islamic universalism and its challenge to the Arab states. Whereas militant violence was practically absent in nineteenth century political Catholicism (though not in other, revolutionary creeds), Catholic universalism was a much stronger reality. It nonetheless receded before the European nation-states, which were far more deeply rooted than their supposed counterparts in the Middle East.


The idea that national sentiments of affinity and solidarity, and their various political expressions, are exclusively modern and European is one of the great missteps of modern social theory. It is true, however, that mainly due to the dominance of imperial structures in the Middle East over millennia, nations and nation-states did not take root and evolve through most of this region. In the twentieth century, the new states that emerged were further undermined by the competing universalist ideas of pan-Arabism and the Islamic ummah. At the same time, they were undercut by the survival of tribalism, mainly associated with the existence of the pastoralist tribe in the semiarid environments that do not exist in temperate Europe. Confessional communities, familiar from Europe, complete the cleavages and divisions of identity in the Arab Middle East.

Hence the Egyptian quip that except for Egypt itself, all the other Arab countries are just tribes with a flag. Given their ethnic, confessional and tribal disunity, many of these countries were held together only by the coercive and repressive force of brutal authoritarian regimes. Like the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, they have quickly fallen apart once these regimes lost power, sometimes degenerating into a murderous mayhem. Where a distinct national identity as one people exists, political differences, sometimes very acute and even violent, do not threaten the very existence of the state. Apart from Egypt, a people and nation with very old roots, national identity in the Arab world has more or less consolidated in Tunisia and partly also in Morocco and Yemen (in which tribal politics is still very much alive). Among the non-Arab countries of the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Israel are all deeply rooted national states, despite the presence of large ethnonational minorities in each of them. By contrast, Syria and (only somewhat less ruinously) Iraq are the scenes of vicious violent conflict, torn apart as these countries are by their constitutive ethnic and confessional elements that often have very little in common with one another. In post-Gaddafi Libya, the various tribes and militias pay little heed to the central government and its flag.