Walter Russell Mead has a fine essay on his Via Meadia blog, comparing current events in Egypt to the French Revolution. As Mead is not a specialist of Egypt or the Arab world, he relies on his knowledge of European history to make sense of what’s happening in Cairo
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.
A knowledge of history—and particularly European history—is not only a good thing in itself but is also practical and useful. Mead thus concludes his essay
We shall see where this goes, but in the meantime the Via Meadia advice to investment banks, hedge funds, government officials and others trying to read the tea leaves of world unrest is simple: make sure that among your prognosticators and analysts you include a few strong liberal arts generalists with a strong background in European history from the Renaissance forward. The modernization process got its start in Europe and the nascent Anglosphere, and the history of those societies provides valuable clues to the forces now unleashed on a wider world.
I don’t necessarily agree with Mead across the board—late 18th century France is not 21st century Egypt (duh)—but he has many valid insights. He could have mentioned Tocqueville’s book on the French Revolution—one of the greatest interpretive works of history ever written—, which reinforces his argument. Read the whole essay. It’s worth it.