An Arab 1848?
For those not that versed in European history, Wiki has a useful summary of what occurred that year. Talleyrand, whose record in interpreting events so far has been not-so-great, nonetheless rightly notes that such change is never linear and certainly wasn't all sweetness and light:
Tunisia... Egypt... Bahrain... Iran... Libya... Yemen... Sudan... Jordan... and even Morocco... Who knows there the mania will go next? The street revolts in these places seemed initially to recall 1968. But they are now looking more like 1848. Yet today there is no Marx to make sense of them.
Those who prefer 1848 to 1968 should take heed of the past. The response to those revolutions was violent. They did not, amazingly, result in a major war among any of Europe's major powers unless we consider (as Marx might have done) 1914 to have been the logical outcome of the forces they unleashed. In their own time, however, none, with the partial exceptions of those in Denmark and Switzerland, resulted in the ideal, liberal democracy they urged so passionately.
That this happened in 1989, by contrast, had as much to do with the magnetic existence of NATO and the European Union, and the bankruptcy of Soviet power as it did with the inherent, progressive convictions of the revolutionaries. None of these things, except perhaps the final one, is present in today's Maghreb and Mashrek and elsewhere nearby.
An 1848-scenario in a region as fractious as the Middle East is very worrisome. The best result, according to most informed observers, is a replacement of the region's detested despots with army juntas that will evolve gradually into civilian-led republics. But which group of revolutionaries will be satisfied with such an outcome? Probably none. Meanwhile juntas are not the most stable heads of government. A period of tremendous instability awaits.
The question he doesn't answer is: what happens when a backward region has an 1848 in 2011, an era where the rest of the world has already moved way past them - and the people, demographically skewed young, know it via the web and satellite TV? Does history move more quickly under those circumstances?
Here's what I assume: that we will see some good outcomes and some disastrous ones. But the idea that these tyrants could hang on for ever, given their records and within these global currents is a fantasy. My old friend Niall Ferguson urges a grand strategy for the US in this moment. I don't see that we have much control or input here except not to alienate the masses of the region, to help the more promising democrats, to protect our core interests, such as access to oil and free shipping, and to muddle through.
My sense is that this is a historical process that has been long delayed by tyranny in the Arab Muslim world. It will not mean a new 1989. But it is unstoppable - and a great power thousands of miles away cannot micro-manage or macro-manage it. And, for all one's worries, it is simply impossible (for me, at least) to hope that the tyrants win, in the interests of a stability that has been revealed to be so fragile anyway.