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.
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.