It's always been easier to tear down than to create. And truer words have never been spoken, says Foreign Affairs' Jonathan Steinberg, of the sweeping regime change around the globe, dubbed the Spring of 2011. In "1848 and 2011: Bringing down the old order is easy; building a new one is tough," Steinberg checks in on this year's Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. He argues the parallels to 1848 are striking.
In the early months of 1848, European monarchs were on their heels reacting to revolutions. Napoleon had been defeated in 1815 and Metternich, the great icon of nineteenth century Austrian conservatism, held court over an increasingly unstable Europe. When, on March 15 of that fateful year, he quietly slipped out of Vienna past an angry mob, the old order crumbled with him. It was a scene, argues Steinberg, not unlike that of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's flight from Tunis 163 years later. The waves of revolution also followed after him. And, as Steinberg hardly need point out, in both cases the marching crowds were at as much of a loss for what social and political order came next.
The European revolutions of 1848 also had a precedent, if a bloody one. There was the French Revolution, sparked shortly after a new world rebellion in Britain's American colonies. There were words of liberty, and equality, and fraternity. There were the cultural seeds of democracy and the decline of mercantilism in favour of capitalism and international trade. But it was still a slow, painful process. Napoleon's nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from exile, was still elected president on the strength of his name in the French Republic in 1848, crushing his opponent. A short distance away, Otto von Bismarck took notes from within the Prussian legislature. His embrace for democracy was one predicated on democratic sentiment, not actual democracy. Power still rested in the monarchy and aristocracy, while democracy remained another series of institutions to control the passions of the population.
And so, as the turmoil of 1848 became memory, its poverty and its uncertainty gave way to one of modern history's first economic booms, 1850-1873. Prosperity masked the retrenchment of conservative newspapers, revitalized police forces, and coopted parliaments and elections. It was a step, but it was a small one.
Today's Middle East seems to lack the social architect of an Otto von Bismarck, turning revolution into compromise into reformation. Words like democracy and freedom hang heavy in the air, but they have no rooting, no history of practice, of failure and revolution, other than those of the godless Europeans centuries hence. It is not to deny that democratic freedoms gestate in the soil of the human soul. Maybe so. But humans, even ones impelled by the liberal forces of history, need good examples and plausibility structures to build something new. Incremental change, yes. But on what basis? Social architecture needs a foundation.