Egypt – Dangerous Analogies Abound – And We Should Take Them Seriously – 10 August 2013

Okay, admittedly I was first suckered into reading this because someone on Twitter introduced it by saying “Or maybe a Muslim lesson for the Marx Brothers.” No matter, as it turns out, it’s also a very incisive article.

Basically the author, Barnard College’s Sheri Berman, makes the case that Egypt is heading down the same road today that 1848-9 Germany went down…to the world’s utter detriment, given how Germany later turned out because of how things went down in 1848-9. Her reasoning is thus: Germany had a dictatorial regime (actually several – the monarchs of the various German kingdoms, but worst among them Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia); Germany had legions of hopeful liberals that at first tried to sweep away the conservative regimes (many of whom met in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt to write a constitution); Germany also had socialists (amongst whom were the first organised party of capital C Communists, including Karl Marx, but the vast majority of whom were idealistic working class people, more like Robert Blum); finally, the liberals and the socialists at first are allies against the dictators, but the thought that the socialists might govern this new Germany was so threatening to liberals that they ended up giving power right back to the dictators.

Her reasoning about Egypt is similar, except that in place of the socialists, Berman places the Islamists. The Mubarak regime plausibly substitutes for the Prussian monarchy, and Egyptian liberals are broadly similar to the old German liberals, but the main difference in the two scenarios is that Egypt has Islamists as its other major player in this drama rather than socialists. Otherwise, she argues, it’s the same story. The whole revolution thing starts out, in both places, with everyone allied against detested dictators, then there is a falling out between the two major factions, and the liberals go crawling back to the dictators rather than patch things up.

It’s not a perfect analogy to be sure – by my reading of German history, most of the social democratic/socialist revolutionaries of 1848-9 in Germany were well-meaning idealists who wanted to include economic equality on the list of things the revolution was supposed to be about, and this was the main thing that freaked out the middle-class liberals, who ultimately decided they would rather offer the crown of a united Germany to Friedrich Wilhelm IV. (Also, the Prussian king famously refused the offer, saying he could not “accept a crown from the gutter”…indicating he and the Frankfurt liberals were not all that cosily allied, despite the wishes of said liberals.)

On the other hand, many of the Islamists outside of the democratic faction that ruled during Morsi’s time in office are far more conservative than a Prussian king ever was, and the democratic Morsi group was both actually offered the chance to govern Egypt and ultimately deposed because people thought he was too close to those to his right…none of _that_ sort of thing happened in Germany.

It is in the behaviour of the liberals where I see the greatest argument in favour of Berman’s analogy, however, because in both 19th Century Germany and 21st Century Egypt, I see roughly the same attitude being taken – instead of focusing on what the best outcome for the country is, spooked liberals are focusing on what’s best for them.

German liberals helped create the conditions for the Wilhelmine autocracy and the Hitler regime by considering their class privileges more important than the establishment of a democratic society. Missing the opportunity to set down deep democratic roots for the country in 1848-9 because of their fear of with whom they would have to share democratic freedoms, they allowed the Prussian king to take over the rest of the German kingdoms in 1871.

Egyptian liberals may well be helping create conditions for similar outcomes. Though Mubarak’s regime is no more, it may well be the case that General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi will usher in a military regime that is no better. But why do Egyptian liberals tolerate a military coup? Because of their fear of the Islamists – not only the ones that deserve to be feared, but also the ones that are willing to participate in democratic government.

No historical analogy from one country is likely to completely and properly cover another country in another age. But this one is close enough to keep me worried about what is going on in Egypt.

Berman doesn’t mention it, but there’s another historical analogy that seems appropriate here. The French Revolution of 1789, after a few years, began to lose energy, mostly because of a series of missteps (in France’s case, extreme missteps – The Great Terror and the mass guillotining of dissidents across the country). Because the country was in such turmoil because the Revolution was going awry, in rides a general to save the Revolution from itself. His name was Napoléon Bonaparte, and by 1800, he had proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. Bonaparte rose to power not only with the support of more conservative elite figures, but also with the support of numerous liberal and lefties, who seriously believed he was acting to save the Revolution.

That’s a pretty good analogy as well – and one that should make us watch eagle-eyed for any signs that General al-Sissi is encouraging anyone to offer him a crown.

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