Failed revolutionaries?

What do Europeʹs "Spring of Nations" of 1848 and the Arab Spring have in common? Both revolutions it seems were doomed to failure, with those involved forced to endure a long and icy winter of restoration. And yet there is a glimmer of hope. An essay by the Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy

By Khaled Fahmy

The "Arab Spring" designation harks back to the term "Spring of Nations", used by some historians to describe the European revolutions of 1848. Despite its Eurocentric character, the term could however prove useful when comparing the European revolutions of 1848 and those in the Arab world between 2011 and 2013.

After all firstly, just as in the Arab Spring, the revolutionary aspirations of 19th century Europe didnʹt stop at national borders. They gradually took hold in France, Germany and Hungary and ultimately gave fresh impetus to the protests that had previously erupted in Italy. In the same way, in the wake of its initial beginnings in Tunisia, the Arab Spring spread to Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.

Secondly, the revolutions of 1848 were motivated by a profound sense of the urgent need to overhaul the status quo – even if Republicanism, as in the case of France, wasnʹt the only alternative up for debate. The definitive form of the political systems that the 1848 revolutions hoped to install may not have been entirely clear. Nevertheless, the bolstering of democratic institutions and the integration of broad swathes of the populace into the political process were fundamentals on everyoneʹs list of goals.

Rentier economies versus imminent revolt

In my view, the Arab Spring revolutions also emerged from the realisation that the political power structure in the Arab world, the foundations of which were laid shortly after the end of World War One, had outlived its usefulness and must be overcome. After all, all Arab regimes had failed to provide minimum levels of developmental progress and stability. Moreover, they werenʹt even able to defend their territory.

January revolution in Egypt on Tahrir Square (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
A brief summer of freedom: despite the failure of the "Arab Spring", the Arab revolutionaries are the only protagonists to have made any serious effort to address the structural crisis currently facing Arab societies. The regimes, on the other hand, continue to limit themselves to the deployment of raw, excessive violence and acts of retaliation against their enemies

Even those Arab states that attained a tangible improvement in living conditions for their citizens did not do this on the basis of a shrewd and sustainable development policy. They owed their success to a rentier economy based on trading with natural resources such as oil and gas. A success that was always accompanied by a fundamental democracy deficit and a lack of political co-determination rights for the populace.

Countries without oil deposits also relied on this kind of income source and propped up their economies on remittances from their nationals working in oil-rich states. Revenues thus generated undoubtedly helped to stall more widespread protests and provided regimes and rulers with a grace period that in some cases lasted decades.

The legacy of the Arabellion

In other words – just like the "Spring of Nations" –  the causes of the unrest in the Arab world were both structural and historical. It was not the outcome of a single specific moment in time. The failure of states in the Arab world following the attainment of independence is a complex and multi-factorial phenomenon, which among other things manifested itself in the Arab uprisings of 2011-2013. Even the flight of millions of people from the Arab world to Europe to escape Islamist terror can also be seen as resulting from this failure.Thirdly, the growing importance of the social dimension as the revolutions progressed was evident in both the Arab Spring and the "Spring of Nations".

Although in their early stages, both the Arab and the European revolutions were restricted to ousting the relevant regime and social reforms were not an objective, in both cases socio-economic problems quickly emerged as the focus of revolutionary aspirations.

In Europe, the social dimension found its expression first and foremost in demands for a reduction in working hours, for permission to form trade unions and, in the case of Hungary and Austria, the abolition of serfdom.

In the same way, the growing interest in womenʹs rights, social justice, independent trade unions and the battle for academic freedom during the course of the revolutions are representative of the significance of social issues to the Arab Spring.

Failed revolutions and the restoration of the status quo

Fourthly, what the "Spring of Nations" and the Arab Spring also have in common is that the romantic ideas that underpinned their designation would very soon turn out to be just that. Neither was destined to succeed and the "Spring of Nations" quickly turned into a long and icy winter. Shortly after the outbreak of the European revolutions in February 1848, repressive monarchies succeeded in reasserting their control after realising that not only were the revolutionaries unable to pose a serious threat to the state apparatus, they were also unable to count on support from the military.

Graffiti near to Tahrir Square in Cairo showing activists of the 2011 revolution (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Former icons of the pro-democracy rebellion are now incarcerated: many Egyptian Arabellion activists have either gone into hiding, left the country or remain in prison. Sisi had reason to clamp down hard on the revolutionaries: "In Egypt, the counter-revolution under the leadership of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi would not have been possible without generous financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates," writes Khaled Fahmy

By contrast, thanks to the co-operation of Church and Monarchy, as well as the mutual offers of support by reactionary regimes, the counter-revolution was successful. A classic example of this kind of support was provided by the Tsar of Russia, who sent a 300,000-strong army into Hungary to crush the revolution there.

Analogously, in the case of the Arab Spring the counter-revolutions were for the most part successful because the Gulf monarchies supported the reactionary powers that had come under pressure from the revolutions. A clear illustration of this support is the fact that in March 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops to Bahrain to tackle the revolution there.

In Egypt too, the counter-revolution under the leadership of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi would not have been possible without generous financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

An irrevocable turning point

Fifthly and lastly, a further parallel between the Arab Spring and the "Spring of Nations" is that both represent a turning point in the recent history of Europe, as well as that of the Arab world. It may be the case that the "Spring of Nations" became a long cold winter, and that the reactionary regimes very quickly regained the ground they had lost in just a few months of 1848. It is also true to say that they succeeded in making an example of the workers, journalists, lawyers and trade unionists that led the many different revolutionary movements.

Nevertheless, the goals of the revolutions that the European masses vociferously demanded in rural and urban areas during the year 1848 largely dictated the political process in the second half of the 19th century. The "Spring of Nations" led to fundamental changes in the political, societal and cultural landscape of European countries.In similar fashion it can be determined that in Arab Spring nations, counter-revolutionary forces have comprehensively succeeded in regaining control. But the questions thrown up by the Arab Spring are now firmly on the table. They arose from the awareness that changes to the political structures in the Arab world are now imperative and that the constant failure of nations must be brought to an end. These questions were never previously posed with such vehemence, not even during the era following the devastating defeat of 1967.

The genie is out of the bottle

The Arab Spring revolutions have confronted the Arab world with questions that pose existential challenges. For example, concerning the relationship between rulers and the ruled, or the establishment of conditions in which the populace can genuinely act with confidence. But also the situation of women in Arab societies and the overcoming of all the forms of discrimination they are subjected to.

Also presenting itself is the question of a prudent economic policy to free Arab societies from their reliance on sources of revenue such as oil and remittances from labour migrants abroad. Not least, the revolutions have also thrown up the question of the role of religion in the public sphere.

Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy (photo: private)
Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy (photo: private)

Ruling regimes have always claimed to have an answer to all these questions. But with the outbreak of the Arab revolutions in 2011 it became clear that these claims were nothing more than lies and idle talk. And furthermore, that any promises made by counterrevolutionary forces to restore stability and security are just an illusion.

The Arab revolutionaries are the only protagonists that have made any serious effort to address the structural crisis currently facing Arab societies. The regimes, on the other hand, continue to limit themselves to the deployment of raw, excessive violence and acts of retaliation against their enemies. That said, the genie is out of the bottle and despite all their desperate attempts, Arab regimes will not succeed in driving it back in.

Khaled Fahmy

© 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon