Photo by Mohamed Abed, Getty Images
Any event as major as the protests rocking the Middle Eastern autocracies (Sudan is the latest) is going to draw analogies like flies on, well, honey (or shit, if you prefer). Blogger Abu Muqawama warns against this:
can we all agree to stop using European historical analogies to describe what is taking place in Egypt? It's not Europe in 1848 or Eastern Europe in 1989 or France in 1789: it's Egypt in 2011.
What is taking place in Egypt today is the result of sui generis social, political, cultural and even geographic phenomena. When we use "western" frames of reference to make sense of what is taking place, by contrast, we a) sound really freaking narcissistic and b) fail to take those local phenomena seriously and thus miss a lot of what is going on.
Excellent point. Most of the time they're used, historical analogies range from insulting to dangerous ("we have to go to war with country X because it's Munich all over again!").
Of course, every uprising or revolution is unique; there's a reason "There is No They" is plastered to the top of this blog. Nonetheless, humans being human, some patterns of conflict do repeat and history can prove instructive. At the beginning of the protests in Egypt, I said (via Twitter and elsewhere) that it seemed like the current wave might be similar to the 1848 revolutions that rocked Europe.
1848 lithography of a German uprising
So, taking into account the important unique factors in this situation, why is 1848 a useful analogy here?
1) The uprisings happened quickly across a number of different nations with cultural connections, who faced similar circumstances. Particularly; established autocratic regimes that kept a tight lid on free speech and used a combination of police and military to retain power.
2) These problems are compounded by poverty and the increasing isolation of the regimes, while new forms of mass media threaten the old stranglehold on information.
3) Said autocratic regimes have historically survived with the backing of a larger international order. In 1848 it was the Congress of Vienna. In 2011 it's tacit approval and military funds from larger world powers.
However, unlike the 1989 revolutions that toppled many Communist governments, these connections aren't in the form of an empire (the USSR) and its satellite states. While the regimes have similar frameworks of support along with some of the same backers, those involved are independent, both in 1848 and today. This makes a total 1989-style overthrow fairly unlikely, because their power is less dependent upon a central authority overseeing multiple nations.
4) The lightning-quick success of the initial revolts leads people facing similar circumstances to stage their own uprisings. In 1848 it was the overthrow of Sicilian and French monarchs, especially the latter. In 2011 Tunisia's Ben Ali proved to be the first to fall.
The speed with which the formerly entrenched ruler is toppled emboldens populaces with decades of built-up resentment, who now think their own rulers weaker than before. The international order that had previously aided said ruler reels from the speed of events, unsure of what to do. Another uprising breaks out, and then another. Each one punctures the myth of invincibility that is a tyrant's most precious possession.
Those factors are enough to make the analogy worth a look, while keeping an eye on the things that make 2011 unique. The fact is, we simply don't know how this is all going to shake out. 1848 ended with what initially seemed like counter-revolution triumphant, but on far shakier ground than before. The seeds of tremendous future upheaval were sown in a single year. That could happen this time, but a whole range of different outcomes are entirely possible.
So why does it matter?
To those fighting against these regimes, 1848 is a reminder that it's necessary to organize and develop a clear plan of action for what they want, especially if an overthrow succeeds. Lack of that in 1848 meant a number of revolutions failed to gather the necessary staying power.
For those of us who live elsewhere, 1848 is a reminder that backing autocracies for their alleged stability is a stupid idea that only leads to worse outcomes in the long run.
The similarities to this particular shard of history instruct that it's better to welcome the revolutions and try to shape what happens afterward into a society that's actually better for those within it.
This brings me to the final tie with 1848: it is impossible for these countries to return to the old status quo, even if some rulers do manage to cling to power. Outside their borders, international support for dictators is moving from an activists' issue to a public one, compounded by the budget crunches many world powers face. The political cost of future support will likely be higher than before.
Everything's changing, and it will be a long time before the dust settles.