Egypt and the model of the French Revolution

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. … Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

We cannot know whether the Egyptian revolution will prove a tragedy, a satisfying epic, or a farce, but the similarities to the French model are already notable:

  1. Scattered tumultuous days of action begin with some kind of popular upheaval or violence and change the course of the revolution. Les grandes journées of the French Revolution included July 14, 1789 (the storming of the Bastille), August 10, 1792 (the monarchy overthrown), and 18 Brumaire, 1799 (Napoleon’s coup), among many others. In the Egyptian revolution, Jan. 25, 2011 (the Day of Anger), Feb. 11, 2011 (the Friday of Departure–Mubarak’s resignation), and July 3, 2013 (the coup against Morsi) play similar roles.
  2. A mobilized urban populace in the huge capital city can bring down the government, but the urbanites may be at odds with the much more numerous rural population.
  3. The constitution is problematic–both in content and origin–but it offers the “rule of law.”
  4. The revolution is international. (Compare the Brabant Revolution of 1789 and Syria in 2012-13). The reaction is also international. (Today, Bashar al Assad plays the role of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II; Benjamin Netanyahu is William Pitt the Younger.)
  5. The ancien regime still has its supporters, who are perceived as threats to the revolution.
  6. Military leaders express support for the revolutionary constitution but are capable of taking over at will.
  7. Outside the government and official parliament, strongly ideological groups (Jacobins and Montagnards, Muslim Brothers and Salafis) debate and organize collective action.

To be sure, there are differences. For example, the most radical French revolutionaries were anti-clerical deists, but one form of radicalism in Egypt is ultra-religious and clerical. Another difference: the reactionaries outside Egypt are not massing on its borders.

Professor Joseph Mossad says the term “Arab Spring” is “part of a US strategy of controlling [the movement’s] aims and goals” in favor American-style liberal democracy. The phrase alludes to the “Prague Spring” liberal revolutions across Europe in 1848 (which prompted Marx’s article cited above). I don’t know if Mossad is right, but certainly analogizing current and past events has political significance. At the same time, Marx was right that the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” and revolutionaries “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.” So analogies are inevitable. The question is whether the Egyptians will borrow from Paris, 1789, Saint Petersburg, 1917,  Cairo, 1952, Tehran, 1979, or some other model.

I would recommend Prague, 1989. The Velvet Revolution (imitated by the various “color” revolutions of 2009) was not only nonviolent, but the revolutionaries were intentionally self-limiting. (See Timothy Garten Ash’s analysis.) But clearly, a whole substantive view of politics is built into that view.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.