Revolutions’ formidable task

The last few months have been a sobering experience for Egyptian revolutionaries. As was the case in Europe after the “Springtime of the Peoples” in 1848 — when uprisings overturned governments in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Milan and many smaller capitals — moderate and progressive forces quickly lost ground, unprepared for their success, lacking organization and bickering among themselves. In Egypt in 2012, as in Europe in 1849, reactionary forces seem in the ascendant. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its judicial toadies have found the Mubaraks innocent of corruption, dismissed the elected Parliament and imposed its own governing “law,” soon to be revised by a kangaroo constitution-writing body.

Just as in Europe in 1848, powerful outside forces favor the reaction. For all its promises, the G-8 has done virtually nothing, a fact tacitly admitted in May 2012 by US Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats, in remarks designed to excuse Western foot-dragging on the Deauville partnership with Arab Countries in transition. In Egypt, the US has gotten what it wanted: excluding from power the Mubarak boys, whom the US believed had little support within the military, but keeping the military in control. Any doubts about US policy have been removed by the tut-tutting about the outrageous behavior of the SCAF. The irrefutable evidence of naked American support for tyranny in Egypt will be approval of the International Monetary Fund’s US$3.2 billion loan to Egypt, which cannot be justified on economic grounds.

Before getting too discouraged about this turn of events, let’s consider the lessons of 1848. Overthrowing Mubarak, like overthrowing Louis-Philippe I of France in February 1848, was the easy part. Destroying an entrenched elite — Mubarakism — will be a much more formidable and time-consuming task. Youthful demonstrators in Vienna in 1848 twice drove Emperor Ferdinand I out of the city; after his second exile, Alfred I, Prince of Windisch-Grätzlaid, laid siege to the city, killing some 3,000 people. His brother-in-law, Prince Felix zu Schwarzenberg, took over the government. He imposed martial law, restored censorship, closed political clubs, arrested revolutionary leaders and, two months later, forced Ferdinand to abdicate in favor of his nephew. In March 1849, Schwarzenberg dismissed the popularly elected Parliament, arrested its leaders and tore up the constitution they had written: He imposed his own “constitution.” In his constitution, the emperor kept absolute authority over the military and foreign policy, and had the right to veto any law passed in the new parliament. Sound familiar? He subsequently tried and executed several of the revolution’s leaders, perhaps personal revenge for his sister Maria’s death from a stray bullet in Prague in June 1848.

Elsewhere in Europe in 1848–49, it was much the same story. The “Five Glorious Days” of Milan led to battlefield defeat and the restoration of Austrian power. The nearly bloodless fall of Louis-Philippe led to a provisional government and a parallel revolutionary council whose leaders included Louis Blanc, Alexandre Martin (the “worker Albert”), Armand Barbes and Francois-Vincent Raspail. The elections of April 1848, like so many post-revolution elections, returned a conservative majority. General Louis-Eugene Cavaignac’s troops killed perhaps 1,500 workers during the June Days. The special tribunal sentenced Albert, Barbes and, in absentia, Blanc to deportation to the Iles Marquises in French Polynesia. Raspail, who had finished fourth in the presidential election of 1848, got five years of hard labor. Raspail, Barbes and Albert ended up in French prisons.

Successful short-term repression is a nearly inevitable part of the revolutionary process. The good news is that it invariably fails. I am always amazed that history books tell us the revolutions of 1848 failed: not so. In cities like Milan, the Austrians would be gone within a dozen years and Italians would have their national state. In France, within a generation, a republic built on universal manhood suffrage had come to pass. Democratic reforms, workers’ rights, pensions, workers’ compensation, universal education — all of these changes came to pass in the lands of the 1848 revolutions, within one or two generations. Nationalist aspirations, in contrast, often had to wait much longer. In 1968, the violent repression of the Prague Spring stifled reform in East Central Europe. But 21 years later, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and other countries overthrew their post-totalitarian regimes.

Military reaction inevitably fails because violent repression cannot solve economic problems. In June 1789, King Louis XVI of France could not shoot the revolutionaries because doing so would have cut him off from capital markets. This week, yield on Egyptian treasury bills reached a 15-year high. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves are down by half, much of the money spent on foolish attempts to shore up the Egyptian pound. Finding the Mubarak brothers innocent of corruption will surely not help Egypt’s critical capital outflow problem, nor will it reassure foreign investors that the bad old days of crony kleptocracy are over.

In the short run, Egyptian revolutionaries may be discouraged, but they should remember that implementing revolutionary change takes time. History won’t render its judgment for years to come. As for the legacy of 1848, if you find yourself in Paris, stroll along the Rue Louis Blanc, the Rue Albert, the Boulevard Barbes or the Boulevard Raspail, Paris’ longest street. Don’t waste your time looking for a Rue Cavaignac.

James Collins is a history professor at Georgetown University

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