Walter Russell Mead: Cairo ... Paris of the East?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Walter Russell Mead is the Henry Kissinger senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He also writes a blog for the American Interest.

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...

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