The similarities between the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt last spring and the ones in Europe in 1848 are striking. In the early months of 1848, the sclerotic and reactionary political systems that the European monarchs had developed after Napoleon Bonaparte's 1815 defeat collapsed. Prince Klemens Wenzel Metternich, who was the state chancellor of the Austrian empire and a symbol of the despised old order, slipped out of Vienna on March 15 as an angry mob marched in. Along with Metternich, the Austrian empire's 23-year-old repressive dictatorship vanished. In Italy, France, and the German states, the old order crumbled as well. The scene was not unlike that of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's own flight from Tunis 163 years later and the wave of revolutions across the Middle East that followed. In both cases, the crowds in the streets were glad to see the dictators go but unclear on the social and political orders that should replace them.
The revolutionaries of 1848 had a model on which to base their fight: the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which the French National Assembly approved in 1789, had laid the groundwork for upheavals to come. It declared: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good." This doctrine was social dynamite. "The gradual development of the principle of equality is, therefore, a providential fact," the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote later, "and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress."
Napoleon spread the ideas of the enlightenment and revolution to the European continent at large, usually at bayonet point. Between 1800 and 1815, he consolidated control over an expanding empire by replacing traditional, often unwritten, legal codes with rational, written ones and replacing old administrative districts with new. "Careers open to the talented" -- Napoleon's answer to that great French demand for equality of opportunity -- turned provincial lawyers into statesmen and drummer boys into marshals of the empire.
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