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Published on: November 26, 2011
Cairo: Paris of the East?

With the accelerating euro crisis in Europe, the geopolitical revolution in Asia and increasing doubts about the Chinese economy, the increasingly misnamed Arab Spring sometimes has to struggle for airtime these days.  But the struggle in Egypt has entered a new phase, one which will test the strength of the various groups struggling to control […]

With the accelerating euro crisis in Europe, the geopolitical revolution in Asia and increasing doubts about the Chinese economy, the increasingly misnamed Arab Spring sometimes has to struggle for airtime these days.  But the struggle in Egypt has entered a new phase, one which will test the strength of the various groups struggling to control the country in the wake of President Mubarak’s fall from power.

Those of us old enough to have attended college back when even liberal arts and humanities professors routinely taught subjects that actually matter can dredge up our studies of the French Revolution and the subsequent 200 years of European and global reflection on the meaning and politics of that revolution to help us get to grips with what is happening in Egypt.

Portrait of Louis Philippe, King of the French (Franz Xaver Winterhalten)

No study of history can tell you what will happen (despite technocratic “political scientists” wielding regression analyses and expounding the “laws” of political life), but the study of what happened in the past generally yields valuable insights and often helps you sort out the real issues and identify key turning points.

That is particularly true in Egypt today where the struggle between the protesters in Tahrir Square and the armed forces echoes political patterns that turned up over and over in the rich history of French revolutions and revolts from 1789 right up through 1968.  The Tahrir rebles, like French revolutionary wannabes in the past, must accomplish two tasks: the revolutionaries in Paris had to unite with the poor and the workers in the capital, and the capital had to win the allegiance of the rest of the country.  The question of who ruled France often turned on the question of whether Paris or the nation as a whole was in charge.

In general, Paris was the most “modern” part of France.  The economy was more highly developed; the great universities were there with the best connected, most creative and most ambitious students; the leading intellectuals sat in its cafes and wrote for its journals; it was the cultural and financial center of the country as well.  Imagine New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Washington DC all rolled up into one city: that is something of what Paris has meant to France in modern times.

In the first French Revolution the radical Jacobins and their allies in the poor Paris suburbs drove the conservative Girondins and their allies scattered across the country from power.  Later, Napoleon I, King Louis Philippe and Napoleon III were able to use the conservative instincts of the provincial cities and the rural masses to keep the “progressives” and the revolutionaries in check; in a similar way the Third Republic triumphed over the Paris Commune of 1871 as the more conservative countryside threw its weight behind the more conservative alternative.

Cairo, of course, is something like the Paris of Egypt today.  It is not the only city in Egypt, but it is the center of Egyptian intellectual, religious, cultural, political and economic life.  It is more “advanced” than most of the rest of the country: more international, more affected for good or bad by the forces of international capitalism, and it is the center of the country’s politics, media and business.

The drama now playing out in Cairo is in some respects very French.  The demonstrators in Tahrir Square think of themselves as the advance guard of the Egyptian population, the true representatives of an emerging national consensus.  From their perspective they are the “voice” and the “conscience” of the nation, even if much of the nation doesn’t understand that yet.  The demonstrators want to use their position at the center of Egyptian life to make fundamental changes.  The military command believes that the peasants and the provincial elites are more afraid of anarchy and disorder than they are committed to radical change; by appealing to the “silent majority” and  proposing a national referendum the generals are hoping to sideline the demonstrators and base their continuing power on the conservatism of the countryside.

French history cannot tell us who will win, but it can help us estimate the odds.  Most French revolutions failed to overturn the existing order.  With the exception of the great-grandaddy of them all in 1789-92, at most they made some changes at the top — throwing out Charles X in 1830, Louis Philippe in 1848 — but after brief periods of ferment and instability the country settled down into a new political order not very different from the old one.  Often, Paris wanted to go further, but the rest of the country backed off.  France as a whole wanted a bit of reform, but it was more interested in preserving a way of life than in trying something new.

What we see in Egypt today looks like a classic case of a revolutionary vanguard in the capital city that hopes to push through rapid and thorough change, but has a hard time fighting the inertia of a large country that may not be ready to move.  Inside Cairo, the poor have so far mostly held aloof from the protests.  Beyond Cairo, although there have been demonstrations and occasional clashes in other cities, the country as a whole does not yet seem on the boil.

Deepening the inertia is the fact that so far, the essentially conservative alliance represented by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is holding.  Those two groups helped make the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1952; since then the military has kept the Brotherhood on a tight leash, sometimes allowing it more power and at other times less.  Over time, the Brotherhood has gradually improved its position and it seems to feel that continued collaboration with the military will lead to even more power in the future.  These groups are still sticking together in 2011; the Brotherhood believes it will do well in the upcoming parliamentary elections and it has so far not supported the latest wave of protests; it was absent from yesterday’s demonstrations, reports say.

Americans sometimes think of “Islamism” as a radical ideology and from a western point of view this can be true.  Some Islamists would not make good dinner guests.  In the Egyptian context, however, the Muslim Brotherhood strikes many people as a conservative force for stability and social order.  Rooting its appeal in a religion that 90 percent or more of Egyptians profess, shunning the radicalism of even more fundamentalist “Salafis”, standing for the protection of property rights and sporting a longer track record than many of the newly active parties emerging from the recent turmoil, the Muslim Brotherhood looks like the safety play for many Egyptian voters.  We shall see what happens in the elections, but the Brotherhood appears to think that the countryside will back its tacit support for order and reward it in the upcoming elections, even if the Cairo demonstrators boo and hiss.

The Brotherhood is believed to be the largest political body in Egypt; as long as its alliance with the military holds, it will be hard for the “vanguard” in Tahrir, divided and factionalized as it is, to overturn the foundations of the Egyptian state.  History again suggests that this is a good bet; Parisian revolutionary intellectuals often had much less support in rural areas and secondary urban centers than they thought.

As we saw this week with the return of large scale violence in Cairo, the situation in Egypt remains volatile.  French history gives us some clues about whether this forecast will change: what the signs would be of a deep revolutionary wave.  The urban masses and the peasants are the key.  In 1789-92 the combination of hunger and crop failure in the countryside and ignorance about the dangers of revolutionary radicalism helped the most extreme forces of the revolutionary movement gain power in France. The peasant hunger for land reform in the countryside meshed with the discontent of the urban poor.  Something similar happened in Russia in 1917-18.

If the urban poor in Cairo get truly wrapped up in the demonstrations, and if the peasants in the countryside also rise, Egypt could go from instability to revolution.  That could happen, especially if the economy fails and there is real hunger and want in Cairo and the countryside.  At present, in neither the country nor the city do the poor seem to be making common cause with Tahrir Square; watch news accounts carefully to see whether this is beginning to happen.  So far, even in the latest round of protests, it doesn’t seem to be.  This still looks like a mostly middle class protest and reform movement divided into Islamist and liberal wings rather than being a revolutionary upheaval that stirs society to its depths.

Force plays a major role in revolutionary situations: do the police and ultimately the armed services have both the means and the will to suppress insurrections and control the streets? Napoleon, who ultimately brought the French Revolution to a close, is famous for suppressing an attempted radical rising with a “whiff of grapeshot” — firing on demonstrators in the street on 13 Vendémiaire, a date often held to mark the end of the Revolution.  So far, the army and the police appear willing and able to use grapeshot and teargas, and while the protesters respond with anger and indignation, the response does not seem to be mounting into an unstoppable crescendo of revolutionary anger.

We shall see where this goes, but in the meantime the Via Meadia advice to investment banks, hedge funds, government officials and others trying to read the tea leaves of world unrest is simple: make sure that among your prognosticators and analysts you include a few strong liberal arts generalists with a strong background in European history from the Renaissance forward.  The modernization process got its start in Europe and the nascent Anglosphere, and the history of those societies provides valuable clues to the forces now unleashed on a wider world.

Images: From top to bottom: Portrait of Louis Philippe, King of the French (Franz Xaver Winterhalten); the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid; The Taking of the Bastille (Jean Pierre Houël); Portrait of a Sans-Coulotte (Louis-Léopold Boilly); The Taking of the Tuileries (Jacques Bertaux); Napoleon I and the Council of 500 (François Bouchot); 13 Vendémiare.  Wikimedia Commons.

show comments
  • Chase Crucil

    Wow Professor. Articles like this are living proof of the value of a GOOD liberal arts education.

  • nadine

    The Muslim Brotherhood like to portray themselves as conservative to get the “safety play” vote; but there is nothing traditional in Egypt about rule by mullahs according to Sharia law; and that is the goal of the MB. The MB is essentially Islamist and fascist; and have been ever since its founder, Hassan al Banna, made alliance with Hitler in the 1930s.

    People who call the MB “conservative” or “moderate” are confusing patience about methods (learned the hard way under Nasser) with moderation of goals. The MB’s goals are radical and are summed up in their motto:
    – Allah is our objective.
    – The Prophet is our leader.
    – Qur’an is our law.
    – Jihad is our way.
    – Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.

    I think the better comparison for the Cairo Spring is to the Russian revolution, which also had its conservatives (tsarists), its liberal urbanites (Kerensky) and its well-organized radicals (Lenin). We know how that movie ended.

  • Will

    As a humanities professor at a state university who does teach “subjects that actually matter” I find Mead’s point both true and a constant disappointment. Set aside the culture wars of the 1990s and their impact on the academy–and what’s permissable to teach or stury–and just focus on the self-referential nature of theory-driven fields. And then there’s football and other sports…plus things like retail management that are better learned as an apprenticeship. Who bothers with war, revolution, and the clash of civilizations….

  • JJ

    “…among your prognosticators and analysts you include a few strong liberal arts generalists”

    Actually, this article is good evidence for the proposition that such generalists, unless they also have detailed knowledge of the local facts, are likely to be led astray. The total misunderstanding of the radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood in this article (the Muslim Brotherhood is not a “conservative” force–its roots are in mid-century fascism) might pass for wisdom in the New York Times, but it is surprising to see Dr. Mead, who does not usually follow the herd, repeating this same nonsense. The reason is no doubt that while he is a capable generalist, he speaks no Arabic and knows precisely nothing of the culture or history of the Middle East. So he naturally interprets it in terms that he does understand, namely European history.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @JJ: the piece referred to the way the MB is perceived in the Egyptian context — it did not say that these perceptions were correct.

  • Robert

    Disintegrating systems nearly always devolve to their end-state. Since the Arab Spring began, I have taken it as a given that islamist/jihadist groups will end up running these polities.

    Simply put, if Arabs could “do” democracy, they wouldn’t be in the mess they are. Whether the weakness lies culture (my bet) or religion, its inability to handle modernity is abundantly obvious.

  • WigWag

    While reading Professor Mead’s interesting essay I was struck by how much of his analysis of the situation in Egypt could also apply to Iran.

    Last year’s uprising in Iran largely fizzled out because regardless of how angry and motivated the “Greens” in Tehran were to topple the regime, by in large the poorer classes outside of Tehran and a few other major cities refused to abandon the Mullahs. Without their support, the Iranian students who were in the vanguard of the struggle were not able to accomplish their goals.

    One group that Professor Mead does not mention is the Egyptian merchant class. In the Iranian scenerio the merchant class was divided between regime supporters and opponents. I wonder how important Professor Mead thinks the Egyptian merchant class is.

    In his interesting book, “Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World,” Vali Nasr argues that the merchant class is the fulcrum on which the future of the Muslim world depends. I wonder whether Professor Mead agrees or disagrees with Nasr.

    The American Revolution was a Middle Class revolution (as were the revolutions in Eastern Europe); they succeeded. The French Revolution was not a middle class revolution; it failed.

    More on Nasr’s thoughts about this can be found here,

    http://www.amazon.com/Forces-Fortune-Muslim-Middle-Class/dp/B003IWYG0W/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1322406726&sr=8-2

  • JJ

    @WRM: I had noticed that, but frankly this struck me as sleight of hand, introducing one’s own opinion by attributing it to unknown third parties. For example, on what is this analysis of Egyptian perception based? Have you sat down in a coffeehouse in Cairo and listened for 30 minutes? (I did, though it was a while ago.) The MB is a modernizing movement of sorts, a challenge to traditional authority, which it undermines by coopting traditional symbols and rhetoric, and appealing to an idealized past. This fact is not at all lost on the Egyptian public, which knows full well that their grandparents did not live in the fashion approved of by the clerics.

    To give an example of an additional factor which is obvious to anyone who ever visited Egypt: The mass of young men who have no prospects of ever marrying or of having a relationship with a woman outside of marriage. This has only been noticed by the mainstream media when a female reporter or two were sexually assaulted, but if they had troubled to ask any woman, of any age, who visited Cairo unaccompanied, and cared to connect the dots, this part of the story would have been clear. A ten minute conversation in any Cairo coffeehouse would also see this topic come up (to them, we in the West are living in paradise).

    There is much more to be said, but the relevance of the French Revolution is pretty low on the list of what could be said. To the broader point: General knowledge and perspective are an important foundation, but without detailed facts and experience on the spot, they can be a snare. As for College majors, I’d recommend the hard sciences, where at least one learns some facts, and critical thinking, and even that there are such things as facts.

    JJ

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @JJ: will only observe that when you disagree with someone, it is not necessarily because they have less detailed knowledge of on the ground realities than you do. Any deficiencies in my analysis of Egypt cannot be attributed to a failure to spend time there or to an absence of encounters with the views you describe.

  • Vince

    the rural masses . . . .

    The urban masses . . . .

    When I use the word ‘masses’, I use it in reference to things. I never use that word in reference to people because people are not things.

    But when liberals and leftists use that word, they generally apply it to people. I wonder why that is?

  • Jean

    Well, if you look at the currency and stock markets you can see an economic collapse coming. As Egypt has to import almost half of its food, and according to the Financial Times Egypt will have run through the foreign currency holdings in about three months, the question for outsiders becomes whom will the starving peasants hold responsible?
    Will they blame the students who kicked off the Arab Spring and eventually brought down Mubarrak? Or will they blame the military’s poor handling of the economy since the ouster?
    Have the UN and NGOs ever had a humanitarian catastrophe this large to cope with? IIRC, the population of Egypt is 82 – 83 million people.

  • http://www.dougsanto.com Doug Santo

    Interesting piece and comments. I too am put off by the description of the Muslim Brotherhood as conservatives or a force for continuation of the status quo Mubarak-style government. The mubarak government worked reasonably well with the west and Israel. Would a Brotherhood dominated government continue those policies?

    As an American, my focus is on U.S. interests in the region. Short of a strong national concensus for free and democratic government accompanied by a strong political party that holds the same principles, U.S. interests lie in a military backed government of former regime officials. I would be surprised if the military allowed any other outcome.

    Doug Santo
    Pasadena, CA

  • JJ

    Very few Egyptians speak any language other than Arabic. Visitors who do not speak Arabic are exposed to a tiny and non-representative sliver of the population. An analogy might be to a Spanish monoglot who visits the United States. It would be easy enough to get by–many major US cities even have Spanish language newspapers—but one’s view of the culture would be seriously out of kilter. What is needed (at least to start with) to interpret the USA is not a better background in general studies but the ability to speak English.

    The Middle East is all the rage, so all sorts of people who know very little about the region like to write about it, bringing to the topic whatever expertise, relevant or not, they have at hand. The old line comes to mind about a man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. This situation is made even worse by the pathetic state of academic Middle East Studies. The very few people who know the region also, unfortunately, “know” any number of things which are not true, and in most cases, not even meaningful.

  • JJ

    ps. A contrast is to the brilliant piece WRM wrote about Climate Change. WRM did not try to weigh in on the Science, but instead pointed out that whatever the dangers of Climate Change, the International System is not even remotely capable of imposing the type of controls desired by the Greens. This was a fine example where WRM’s deep understanding of Politics and History made a crucial point which I at least had not seen before.

    The distinction is a bit difficult to articulate, but the Climate example is one where deep knowledge of a field (International Politics) brought out a fact (that the Green program is not a scientific one, whatever its origins, but a political one) that was muddied by the admixture of a scientific debate (about whether Climate Change is real). These insights are all the more valuable for being rare.

  • Robert Hanson

    This fantasy of the MB being a conservative and stabilizing force is still being fobbbed off on those who don’t know any better? For those who don’t know, al Queda is an offshoot of the MB. Want to know what they have in mind, once they win control of the government in Egypt?

    Cairo rally: One day we’ll kill all Jews

    Muslim Brotherhood holds venomous anti-Israel rally in Cairo mosque Friday; Islamic activists chant: Tel Aviv, judgment day has come

    Just Google it…

  • don

    Of course, the French Revolution was also anti clerical, led by secular Parisian revolutionaries to overthrow the priestly nobility. In the current Egyptian context I suppose the Copts at ten percent of the population will get to play that victim role, only with the Muslim Brotherhood playing the cultural default “revolutionaries.” I suppose in a couple years there will even be an Egyptian Grande Armee ready to march across Northern Africa as the economic crisis unfolds.

  • teapartydoc

    If I’m not mistaken, the grapeshot used by Napoleon involved shot loaded into mobile cannon each piece of which was a little smaller than a tennis ball. These were loaded into canisters that served the same function that a shotgun shell serves in holding BB’s together. A cannon shotgun. Quite deadly despite the use of only a “whiff”. I don’t think any government outside of Syria or Iran would seriously consider using such force right now. I do like the article very much and consider it to be instructive. Knowing the beliefs and tendencies of various classes can aid somewhat in strife prognostication, however it is obvious, on the other hand, that how these will react when mixed is much less predictable than a chemical reaction, and the application of analytical thinking is liable to produce predictions far off target. I would go so far as to say that the object of liberal education should be to discover minds capable of thinking in non-analytical modes, because restriction of access to the halls of power to those who have only proven achievement in analytical thinking leaves any society impoverished and doomed to decline.

  • Stupid sexy Flanders

    How will Egypt eat? That is the real immediate question. Not well, is the answer.

  • chris

    Well as one of the maligned political scientists (albeit a novice; I’m only ABD), I feel I should offer a couple thoughts (while also noting that it was “Special Providence” that partly inspired me to pursue grad school).

    First, I would note that every assertion in this post, and in all the comments that follow, can be rephrased as a hypothesis and then subjected to empirical testing of the kind practiced in political science, economics, and so on. Not every hypothesis is equal, of course, and so careful attention must be given to their construction.

    Second, I would also agree that both general and local knowledge is important here. In both, a good knowledge of history is important, but that is something not widely practiced in political science. A good grounding in history can allow an analyst to think creatively and protect him from being misled by wild idealism and preconceived notions. However, even a deep and rigorous education in history can lead us astray, especially if we’re not aware of our own biases. Picking up on some historical example that looms large in our own psychologies and then extrapolating it to the present is always a dangerous method, and it should only be practiced with care. (I would also point out that historical knowledge need not be obtained with a formal liberal-arts education, no matter how “rigorous” that education is. I like to think I know my history very well, but I was never crazy enough to consider it as a major in college).

    Ultimately, what matters here is the standard of evidence. Statistics are good at testing generalizing theories and at comparing cases, as has been done repeatedly throughout this entire discussion. Regression and other similar tools, if done properly, allow us to filter out alternative explanations in a more easily replicable and transparent fashion (yes… statistics can be more easily replicable and transparent than historical analysis, as it is easier to build on another argument and to find errors in the logic).

    Regression, however, is probabilistic. It is not deterministic. No honest quantitative scholar would claim that it can reveal “laws” of the social world. No law of the social world can ever be determined with regression. Anyone who has ever used regression is well aware of its probabilistic nature and its core deficiencies; probably to a much greater degree than those attacking it from the outside.

    On the other hand, qualitative evidence (whether general historical, local historical, case study based, or grounded in process tracing, interviews, or ethnography) offers a rich venue for exploring the exact mechanisms of causation and for deeply exploring the relationships hinted at in regression. The big caveat, however, is that case-description and qualitative evidence contain so many confounding variables that we can never be certain we are observing “the big picture,” that we have eliminated alternative explanations, or that we are comparing “apples to apples.”

    A good analogy is this: regression, history, case study, and so forth are merely tools for analysis; they are to be used together in building a larger structure. Some tools are more appropriate to a situation than others. After all, would we use a screwdriver to drive a nail, or a hammer to drive a screw? Probably not, but both are necessary, although only appropriate to certain tasks.

    With respect to Egypt, I often point out to my more optimistic colleagues that revolutions often consist of alliances among opposition elements, but these alliances fray once the old regime has left power, leaving the better organized, radical faction in charge(see Iran, Russia, etc.). For that reason, it was easy to predict as far back as March that further discord was likely, and the result was not likely to be a good one for any flavor of liberalism.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Chris: note that my objection to political science technocrats was narrowly framed. The attempt to think coherently and in an organized way about the contemporary world is never a bad thing in itself, but the strong tendency in American society to put too much reliance on theory frequently leads to rigid and unrealistic policy making.

  • Tully

    Hisotry rarely repeats itself, but it does rhyme and has been known to do encores.

  • steve

    Prof. Mead and JJ, thank you for a very intelligent debate.
    I am an avid reader of professor Mead, however in this instance I think JJ is making a strong point. I suspect the Egyptians understand what the Muslim Brothers are about and are supporting them for that very reason. I don’t claim to be an expert on them, but do know that their founders, Banna and Qutb were admirers of European fascism and imported much of that belief. Read translations of Egypt’s MB leaders and from the Hamas charter, entire portions are lifted almost verbatim from the tracts of early 20th century fascists and anti-Semites.

  • http://----- Dorothy Wachsstock

    I agree with Nadine. The Muslim Brotherhood is what Pres. Obama would like to be king of the Muslim world and wants to take it over in the United States as well.

    Thus, his speech as the first Black Pres. was really the speech of a Muslim promising he will help take over the world to make the Islamic Flag fly over the White House.

  • http://denis.fodor@t-online.de Andrew

    Modern revolutions (since the American one) suggest an evoluitionary pattern that hinges on the will of the military. G. Washington and the militias; the French revolutionary levee en masse that eventually left the artillery general Bonaparte in chartge; subsequently Boulanger and Philippe Petain; Leon Trotzky’ Red Army; the National Socialists’ revolution that became powered by the Reichsqwhr along with the SA and SS; the toppling of Bela Kunn’s revolution by Horthy’s militias; the toppling of Socialist democracy in post WWI Austria by Dollfuss’
    Heimwehr militia, quietly supported by the army; the reign of Mussolini terminated by Marshal Badoglio; and now watch for role the Greek and Italian armies mifght well play as crisesin these two countries play out.

    And Cromwell presaged all of this.

  • Jerome

    I have to laugh. Egypt is on the brink of the abyss. They can’t grow their own food, and soon they won’t be able to buy it. Public order has broken down to the point that armored cars cannot safely deliver currency in Cairo during broad daylight, and neighborhood militias are setting up checkpoints. Those who can flee are fleeing, those who can loot are looting, and those who can’t do either are taking constructive steps like raping foreign journalists, massacring Copts, and attacking the Israeli embassy. Oh, and tweeting each other about democracy, whatever they imagine that to be. And you all prattle on about the French Revolution and “policies”. What a crock!

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I think the most important thing to take away from this article is that there is going to be a vote, purple fingers raised aloft. The military is being forced to share power, and the voters are going to see how those they vote for behave. This is a step forward for the backward Egyptian culture after having been frozen in place since Nasser. This and the Arab Spring in general was all inspired by the seed of American Culture placed in Iraq, a greater example of strategic cultural judo doesn’t exist in history.

  • TmjUtah

    The first election that returns a Muslim Brotherhood majority will be the last Egyptian election we’ll see in our lifetime.

  • Zoroaster

    The second paragraph is really just one long run on sentence.

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