1848: History's Shadow Over the Middle East

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By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst

1848 in Europe was the year that wasn't. In the spring and summer of that year, bourgeois intellectuals and working-class radicals staged upheavals from France to the Balkans, shaking ancient regimes and vowing to create new liberal democratic orders. The Arab Spring has periodically been compared to the stirrings of 1848. But with the exception of the toppling of the Orleans monarchy in France, the 1848 revolutions ultimately failed. Dynastic governments reasserted themselves. They did so for a reason that has troubling implications for the Middle East: Conservative regimes in mid-19th century Europe had not only the institutional advantage over their liberal and socialist adversaries but also the moral advantage.

Conservative orders, epitomized by the Habsburg Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich, had provided continent-wide stability following the Napoleonic Wars, which in proportional terms killed as many Europeans as World War I. Metternich's Habsburg Empire, encompassing 11 different nationalities, was the geopolitical key to a stable European system (even as the Habsburgs themselves were weak as a power compared to Great Britain and France). Nevertheless, the 1848 reformists were — like people everywhere and in every age — insufficiently grateful. By 1848, the horrors of Napoleon were more than a generation past, and Metternich was consequently viewed as merely a reactionary. But liberal hopes of 1848 would come to naught amid ethnic and national questions that the weakening of the Metternichian system unleashed — ethnic and national questions comparable to the inter-communal tensions that plague the Arab world today.

Indeed, ethnic interests in Europe soon trumped universalist longings. While ethnic Germans and Hungarians cheered the weakening of Habsburg rule in massive street protests that inspired liberal intelligentsia throughout the Western world, there were Slavs and Romanians who feared the very freedom for which the Germans and Hungarians cried out. Rather than cheer on democracy per se, Slavs and Romanians feared the tyranny of majority rule. Among the Slavs were Slovaks, Serbs and Croats who were soon at the throats of their new Hungarian overlords. The Habsburg regime in Vienna exploited these divisions, as well as those between Ukrainians and Poles to the north.

There are fundamental differences between 1848 in Europe and 2011-2012 in the Middle East. Metternich, unlike Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Bashar al Assad in Syria, did not symbolize the decadent rule of one man and one ruling clique; rather, he governed through laws and institutions. Moreover, his polyglot Habsburg system, lying at the geographical center of Europe, constituted a morality in and of itself, necessary as it was for peace among the ethnic nations. This is why Metternich's system survived, even as he himself was replaced in 1848.

While there is no equivalent in the Middle East of the Habsburg system, not every dictatorial regime in the Arab world is expendable for some of the same reasons that Habsburg Austria's was not. That is the burdensome reality of the Middle East today: If conservative — even reactionary — orders are necessary for inter-communal peace, then they may survive in one form or another, or at least resurface in places such as Egypt and Iraq.

Iraq in 2006 and 2007 proved that chaos is in some respects worse than tyranny. Thus, a system is simply not moral if it cannot preserve domestic peace. "Progress includes Order," John Stuart Mill wrote in Considerations on Representative Government (1861), "but Order does not include Progress." In other words, nobody is saying that conservative-reactionary orders will lead to social betterment. Nonetheless, because order is necessary before progress can take hold, reactionary regimes could be the beneficiary of chaos in some Middle Eastern states, in a similar way that the Habsburgs were after 1848. For it is conservative regimes of one type or another that are more likely to be called upon to restore order.

To wit, if the military is seen to be necessary for communal peace between Muslims and Copts in Egypt, that will give the generals yet another reason to share power with Islamists, rather than retreat entirely from politics. The overthrow of Mubarak will therefore signify not a revolution but a coup. If democracy falters in Libya, with the state itself crumbling, then a new strongman may emerge over time, barring an informal break-up of the country. (Yemen is already in such disarray. The recent election in Sanaa cannot mask the fact that the regime, such as it exists, has lost control of significant swaths of the country — to a greater extent than had the old order before 2011.)

While Syria's al Assad is seen as illegitimate, that does not mean that the future in Syria automatically means either democracy or sectarian chaos. It may mean eventually a new form of authoritarianism that alleviates or better manages such instability in the first place. Remember that a system is not defined by the name it gives itself, but by how the power relationships actually work behind the scenes. Thus, Iraq may call itself a democracy, but in truth it is a sectarian "thugocracy" that barely keeps order, and if it continues to falter in that regard, it may eventually be replaced by a full-fledged authoritarian regime (hopefully one far less brutal than Saddam Hussein's).

Indeed, democratic uprisings in 1848 did not secure democracy, they merely served notice that society had become too restive and too complex for the existent monarchical regimes to insure both order and progress. In Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the more complex a society becomes, the greater the number of institutions that are required to govern it.

So one should not confuse the formation of new regimes in the Middle East with their actual consolidation. This will require coercive power in the form of new police forces and intelligence agencies, notes Antonio Giustozzi of the London School of Economics in his provocative new book, The Art of Coercion (2011). And such extreme forms of compulsion are only alleviated by the building of civilian institutions of the kind Huntington talks about, which can then maintain order in a more benign manner. If new bureaucratic institutions do not emerge in a more socially complex Middle East, the Arab Spring will be a false one, and it will be remembered like 1848.

Meanwhile, the authoritarianism of the al-Saud family lingers on in Saudi Arabia, the strategic linchpin of the Arabian Peninsula. And lesser monarchs from Kuwait south to Oman appear not to be in danger. With the exception of the oppressed Shia in Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia, the peoples of the Persian Gulf still broadly associate stability and progress with conservative orders. Thus, the emirs and sultans have the loyalty of their populations and hence the moral advantage.

Syria is at this very moment a bellwether. It is afflicted by ethnic and sectarian splits — Sunnis versus Shia-trending Alawites versus Druze and Kurds. But Syria also can claim historical coherence as an age-old cluster of cosmopolitanism at the crossroads of the desert and the Mediterranean, a place littered with the ruins of Byzantine and medieval Arab civilizations. The Western intelligentsia now equate a moral outcome in Syria with the toppling of the present dictator, who requires those sectarian splits to survive. But soon enough, following the expected end of al Assad's regime, a moral outcome will be associated with the re-establishment of domestic order and the building of institutions  coercive or not. Because only with that can progress be initiated.

1848 had tragic repercussions: While democracy in Europe flowered briefly following World War I, it was snuffed out by fascism and then communism. Thus, 1848 had to wait until 1989 to truly renew itself. Because of technology's quickened advance, political change is faster in the Middle East. But for 2011 to truly be remembered as the year of democracy in the Arab world, new forms of non-oppressive order will first have to be established. And with the likely exception of Tunisia — a country close to Europe with no ethnic or sectarian splits — that appears for the moment to be problematic.

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