The wave of protests in the Arab world has spread much over the past month. What started as protests in Algeria and Tunisia over rising prices in food and oil has not only toppled the repressive government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but has caused ripples across the Arab world and has sparked numerous protests in other Arab countries. So far these protests have had their biggest effect in Egypt where hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in al-Tahrir Square to protest Hosni Mubarak and call for him to resign. While Mubarak has said that he will step down in September once the next elections are held, the protesters are still calling for him to resign immediately. Other government reforms have been achieved due to the protests in Jordan and Yemen as well. The King of Jordan has dissolved the current cabinet and is in the process of forming a new one, while in Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised to not seek reelection in 2013 once his current term is up. Minor protests have also occurred elsewhere in almost Arab country, with major protests in Algeria in December but nothing has come of these protests.
All these protests around the Arab world may seem at this time to be great progress for democracy, but given a few years the developments in the Arab world could end up going the way of the Revolutions of 1848 did in Europe. 1848 was an extreme year of change and upheaval for much of continental Europe as liberal revolutions swept the monarchical regimes of the continent. In France, the restored Bourbon monarchy under Louis-Philippe fell to the liberal revolutionaries and was replaced by an elective system under Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. However, by 1852 Bonaparte declared himself Emperor Napoleon III and turned the republican system of France into a Second Empire. In Germany, protests for expanding civil liberties among the German states threatened to topple both smaller states and larger states such as Prussia, and the Frankfurt National Assembly which was held in 1848 attempted to create a unified democratic German nation-state. However, the rebellion and the National Assembly fizzled in 1849 and the backlash by the aristocracy in Prussia and other German states soon reversed all the achievements by the revolutionaries by 1851.
However, the comparison isn’t all one of doom and gloom. There are also some aspects of the current Arab protests that could encourage successful transitions to true liberal and democratic countries in the next years. First, the protesters against Mubarak in Egypt are behaving very well organized. In the past couple days, the protesters have declared al-Tahrir Square in Cairo, the main area where the protests are taking place, to be an ‘autonomous republic’ that represents the desires of the Egyptian people. While this does initially seem reminiscent of the short-lived Roman Republic of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, there are some differences in this case. The Roman Republic fell because of extensive foreign support for the Pope and France, despite similar ideals, sending troops to crush the Republic to appease the Catholic Church within France. In the case of al-Tahrir Square, the most likely supporters, the United States, have not shown any sign of supporting the Mubarak regime in crushing the protests. In the case of the Paris Commune, the army supported the French government against the Commune, so it really had no chance of success. In Cairo, the army has actually expressed tacit support for the protesters and has openly stated that they will not intervene against the protests and only want to keep them civil.
As for the future of the Arab world after these protests, whether the countries affected end up transitioning to democracies or swapping one oppressive regime for another, there could be a rise in Arab nationalism in the next few decades if 1848 is anything to go by. In the decades after 1848, pan-German and pan-Italian nationalism saw a surge in popularity and united both countries and created new powers in central Europe. The Arab world could see a similar rise in pan-Arab sentiment. Projecting forward more than a decade or so is going into pure speculation, but what fun is there in looking toward the future if you can’t make guesses? I think that the most likely areas of unification that would occur would be in the countries on the Arabian Peninsula, the countries in the Maghreb, and Egypt and Sudan (now minus Southern Sudan). These areas have similar ethnic makeups and are already in international bodies such as the Arab Maghreb Union. I could see Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia creating a stronger economic and political union as well as Saudi Arabia leading a union with the Persian Gulf States. But whatever happens in the Arab world as a result of the protests, 2011 will undoubtedly be a turning point in the history of the region as oppressive regimes which have ruled their countries for decades are overthrown by popular rebellions.