The revolutionary uprising of the people of Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt is being described in some quarters as the Arab 1848. Perhaps a little optimistically, it’s also referred to as a pro-democracy upheaval. There’s no doubt that events in North Africa and the Middle East do contain some echoes of the European revolutions of a century and a half ago. Unfortunately, just like 1848, it’s unlikely that the short-term outcomes will have anything much to do with secular democracy.
Some commentators fear that al-Qaeda aspirants and militant sections of the Muslim Brotherhood are providing the impetus for the current popular uprisings. If they’re right, the 21st century is heading for a crisis of mind-boggling proportions. Where despots are toppled they’ll be replaced by theocratic, totalitarian, West-hating regimes like Iran. When revolution broke out in Iran in 1978, the authoritarian Shah was forced into exile, but Ayatollah Khomeini took up the reins, imposed a fundamentalist theocracy and proceeded to execute his opponents. Can we avert the nightmare scenario where Egypt, Libya et al follow that model? Imagine all the countries from Morocco to Yemen in the grip of militant and proselytising theocracies where the Sunni/Shia divide guarantees rebellion after rebellion and where all forms of westernisation are reviled for tainting Islamic purity and Arabic cultural identity. The prospect of world harmony would recede into the ether and some people may even get nostalgic for today’s toppled autocrats and despots.
That is the worst case scenario. If 1848 is anything to go by, it’s more likely that the wave of protests and demonstrations currently sweeping North Africa and the Middle East will subside and leave little impression in the short term. These states may slowly metamorphose towards democracy, but the process will take many decades. Euphoria at the hasty departure of Ben Ali and Mubarak is already dissipating into a sense of futility and post-traumatic numbness. It’s one thing to clamour for consent by the governed but it’s another thing to translate that into a credible blueprint for change. These revolutions are likely to pay the price for having no clear leadership, no clear narrative or vision and no clear definition of a desirable democratic outcome.
2011 will prove to be a watershed year for the Arab nations but its impact may only become clear in another century and a half.