05/27/2011 08:30 am ET Updated Aug 01, 2011

Why We Should Prepare for the Arab Spring to Fail

Act I of the so-called 'Arab Spring' opened last December, when a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi--after being assaulted and humiliated by local government officials--doused himself in gasoline and set his body ablaze, kicking off months of revolution and tumult across the Middle East.

With events changing by the hour, most predictions of what was to come were obsolete by the end of the news day. And so state leaders and prominent thinkers of various stripes turned themselves around--and began probing the more settled waters of history, in search of a historical parallel that might explain what is going on in the Arab world.

Surely history can offer some instruction.

As a graduate student of Modern History, I've watched this historical mission unfold with plenty of interest, some amusement--and a fair amount of concern. Because I know that most people aren't used to looking at politics from the vantage point of the historian. That means that even if the Arab Spring brings lasting reform, people are probably going to be disappointed by the pace of the change.

Of all the attempts to play historian, U.S. President Obama's has been least convincing. In the course of a single speech, given last week, President Obama compared the Middle East protests to the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the American Civil Rights Movement.

But it's hard to see how the Arab Spring bears much resemblance to the Americans' lone battle against the British Empire (1775-1783), or their internal struggle over slavery (1861-1865). And though he said it with style, Obama's comparison of the the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi to U.S. Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks was less than inspired.

Like Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel claims to have seen this all before.

Referring to the revolutions in 1989 that heralded the end of Communist Eastern Europe, Merkel noted, "We are seeing pictures awaken memories of what we experienced in Europe...people who are shaking off their fear."

This is a comforting thought. We fared well in 1989. The Soviet Union crumbled, the Cold War began to cool, and liberalism rode in triumphantly. What Merkel failed to acknowledge, though, was that Eastern European countries were moving simultaneously to overthrow the yoke of Soviet rule. In comparison, revolts in the Middle East have little in common with each other and less clearly-defined goals.

Let's toss Europe '89 out with Rosa Parks.

Most recently, commentators have embraced a lesser-known antecedent: Europe's 1848 revolutions.

Briefly, here's how it went down: In early 1848, there were rumblings in Sicily, where the Italians were fed up with their meddling Austrian rulers. At the same time, over in France, Parisians took to the street in protest against a national ban on political gatherings; soon, the country seemed to erupt in an orgy of nationalistic, republican fervour--which culminated in the overthrow of sour-faced King Louis Philippe I. That helped the revolution take off: to countries like Germany, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Spain, Romania, and Belgium, where a new class of democtratic(ish) parties and governments were born.

And it all happened so quickly.

And some of the bad guys fell. And others granted liberal concessions.

And while the revolution was not tweeted, Europeans did rely on some newfangled technology: like the railroad, the telegraph, and the mass-produced newspaper.

Sound familiar? Of all the revolutionary "springs" we have to draw on, 1848 Europe is probably closest to what we're seeing today.

The only problem is that, in the short term, the 1848 revolutions failed. Big time. In the words of historian A.J.P Taylor, 1848 was the moment "when history reached a turning point and failed to turn."

If we're going to be useful historians, it is this failure which should interest us.

Within a year or two of 1848, its national revolutions fell apart. In Italy, the monarchy came back. In France, the state was taken over by a new, all-powerful ruler. The German states failed to unite. Hungary fell back under Austria's fold. Elsewhere, things simply fizzled.

This is what we need to prepare for in the Middle East.

We might end up with revolutionary change, as we did in Europe by the 20th century. But it might take more time than we're allowing for. And it probably won't be unidirectional.

Take France: 1848's equivalent to 2011's Tunisia. France was the heart of 1848. That year alone, French revolutionaries managed to throw off monarchical rule and secure suffrage for all men. But then, the revolutionaries calmed down enough to realize they shared nothing in common. There was infighting. And class struggle. And backlash from conservatives, who rallied behind calls for 'Order!' In 1951, Louis Napoleon staged a coup, dissolved the parliament and declared himself France's absolute ruler.

Even lasting changes were slow in coming. The abolition of serfdom in Russia is said to have roots in 1848. But it didn't happen until 1861. Are we prepared to give Damascus or Amman or Cairo 13 years for their revolutionary ideas to bear fruit?

In history, we're used to seeing events on an extended timeline: where a few years, or a few decades don't mean very much.

In current affairs, that's harder to swallow.

That said, Europe is what it is today because of these decades of negotiations. Its liberal institutions are strong because they were allowed, at times, to flounder and fail. It's governments have the general support of their people because so many generations had a role in shaping them.

This week, when the G8 meets in France, Canada and other Western leaders will have to decide how much they want to set the pace of revolution in the Middle East. Already, there's pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose has been lambasted for not coming down quickly enough on Syria, and for being soft on violence in Tunisia, and for cozying up to Hosni Mubarack.

There's calls for that to change. Most recently, The Globe and Mail opined, "Canada should be an agent of change in those countries in which a transformation from autocracy to democracy is most likely to happen."

The U.S has already promised aid for Tunisia and Egypt, and will undoubtedly call on the G8 member nations to follow suit.

I'm sympathetic to the idea of nurturing liberal revolutions--or, at least, propping up democracies when they take root. I also understand the desire to attach certain core conditions to financial aid packages: conditions like legal protections for women and minorities. Because--at the risk of being dubbed a 'neocolonialist' by my more tight-lipped peers--those things just seem right.

But as a historian, I'm also profoundly nervous about interrupting the Arab world's 'Spring' so early on. Revolutions don't take weeks or months. They take years. Or decades. And there's a real chance that if we don't let some of these new revolutions fail in the short term, they might never really succeed.