Timothy Garton Ash: Not 1989. Not 1789. But Egyptians can Learn from Other Revolutions





[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.]

'No one predicted this, but everyone could explain it afterwards." Said of another revolution, as true of this one. "To be honest, we thought we'd last about five minutes,"one of the organisers of the original 25 January protest which began this Egyptian revolution told the BBC. "We thought we'd get arrested straight away." If they had been, if Hosni Mubarak's security forces had once again murdered the foetus in the womb, the world wide web would now be filled with articles by experts explaining why "Egypt is not Tunisia". Instead, the web is abuzz with instant, confident explanations of what nobody anticipated. Such are the illusions of retrospective determinism.

So before we go any further, let us make two deep bows. First and deepest to those who started this, at great personal risk, with no support from the professedly freedom-loving west, and against a regime that habitually uses torture. Honour and respect to you. Second, hats off to Lady Luck, contingency, fortuna – which, as Machiavelli observed, accounts for half of everything that happens in human affairs. No revolution has ever got anywhere without brave individuals and good luck.

One leathery old victim of this revolution, at whose death we should rejoice, is the fallacy of cultural determinism – and specifically the notion that Arabs and/or Muslims are not really up for freedom, dignity and human rights. Their "culture", so we were assured by Samuel Huntington and others, programmed them otherwise. Tell that to the people dancing on Tahrir Square.

This is not to deny that the religious-political patterns of both radical and conservative Islam, and specific legacies of modern Arab history, will make a transition to consolidated liberal democracy more difficult than it was in, say, the Czech Republic. They will. Maybe the whole thing will still go horribly wrong. But the profoundly condescending idea that "this could never happen there" has been refuted on the streets of Tunis and Cairo...

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