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 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.