Robert Zaretsky: Egypt and the Longue Durée

Roundup: Historians' Take

[ROBERT ZARETSKY is Professor in the Department of History and Honors College at the University of Houston. He is, most recently, co-author of France and its Empire Since 1870.]

There are worse places to begin a search for the sources of Egypt's current political earthquake than in the company of a middle-aged French soldier imprisoned in a German stalag during World War II. For the prisoner, Fernand Braudel, captivity felt -- if not like an eternity -- at least like an awfully longue durée. At the time he was captured, Braudel was well into his research for a doctoral dissertation on the history of the Mediterranean. Isolated by barbed wire, he grieved not only for his freedom but also for his research notes and books. Writing atop a single plank of wood, Braudel filled the small pages of school lesson books from memory.

Published shortly after the war, the finished work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, now stands as a landmark of historical methodology. La longue durée, or "long haul of history," is Braudel's central insight. From this perspective, real historical change is so slow as to seem immeasurable. The barely perceptible changes in climate, demography, and geology; the gradual formation of religious and cultural practices; and the slow growth of trade networks or agricultural practices -- all of this, Braudel held, is the real stuff of human affairs. Politics was relegated to the ghetto of l'histoire événementielle, or "event-based history." Rarely meeting a metaphor he did not like, Braudel also described political events as "fireflies flitting across a stage, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion."

Oblivion seems too harsh a prognosis for the events at Tahrir Square. It seems improbable that the effects of the uprising will have only the equivalent two-month lifespan of a firefly. The demand of Egyptians -- young and old, men and women, secularists and faithful -- for democracy and dignity has rocked the foundations of an authoritarian and brutal state that seemed, just a month ago, as stable as the pyramids.

Yet, because pyramids crumble slowly, Braudel's approach offers an ideal vantage point from which to view the events in Egypt. In The Mediterranean, he warned against the attractions of event-based history. Like the foam of waves carried by the tides of deep history, this level catches our attention but then evaporates before our eyes. And although events are exciting, they wedge the observer into the same "dimensions of the anger, dreams, and illusions" felt by those living through them. Instead, a student of history must chart the "underlying currents, often noiseless, whose direction can be discerned only by watching them over long periods of time."...

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