July 5, 2013 6:57 pm

The Egyptian drama sticks to a well-known script

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The euphoria conforms to a familiar pattern that ends in a forceful finale, writes Simon Schama
People dance and cheer at Tahrir Square, the day after former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, was ousted from power on July 4, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt.©Getty

People dance and cheer in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Thursday after Mohamed Morsi was removed from office

Cairo has been going through Act III of the revolutionary passion play, the one in which the euphoria of the streets meets the hardware of the military. For the moment, they are locked in fraternal embrace. Enfolded in the tricolour, soldiers are feted as heroes of the people, deliverers from the oppressors who had masqueraded as liberators. It’s fireworks and frolics. This time it will be different.

But it never is. Act I is The Enactment of the Impossible: autocratic power long supposed impregnable disintegrates from within and its terminal crisis is hastened when government seizes up from the sheer numbers of enraged souls crowding the streets.

Swiftly it is forced to choose between slaughter and surrender. It dips its toe in a little blood (Marie Antoinette wanted to march on Paris) but then it flinches. The backlash is violent and it’s all over. Defectors from the old elite, timing their betrayal well, inherit the liberation and become, for a moment, the gods of the crowd.

Act II, a bit of a downer, proceeds with The Division of the Victors; each party claiming to personify the goals of the revolution, even though their ends are in irreconcilable conflict. A faction gets the upper hand, hand on heart, eyes upturned to providence, promises to respect the liberty and opinions of its opponents and then without more ado moves to crush them and monopolise power. The losers resign themselves to being a loyal opposition until they realise their own survival is at stake.

The boring stuff – the drafting of constitutions, the casting of votes, the making of speeches – unfolds but is flat beer compared with the heady intoxication of the communion of the crowd. Act I was the wave of the magic wand. Freedom will rain loaves and fishes from the sky; no one will rule except at the behest of the assembled people, Cairo traffic jams will be a thing of the past. Astonishingly, outrageously, unforgivably, none of this materialises. A whole year and no one is better off. What a scandal! Obviously the conjuror was a fake. Away with him. Cue distant drumroll. Tweet up a chorus of millions. Get out the uniform; beret at a jaunty angle, call the television studio. The curtain rises on Act III.

Act IV, the last? You don’t want to know, not if you’re a happy camper in Tahrir or Taksim Squares, Rio de Janeiro or the next one on the list. All revolutions begin in the dewy innocence of collective rebirth. All end with the arbitration of arms. Name me one that didn’t. Oliver Cromwell spoke of liberty and salvation and delivered monarchy without the crown. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 – which instituted English parliamentary liberalism after a long religious civil war – was the result of a Dutch invasion and the occupation of London. American liberty (on this fourth of July) is celebrated as the armed uprising of the people against British tyranny, but in the end the fate of independence turned on the army and navy of France’s Louis XVI, who in turn was overthrown by the insurrection of the crowd at which Napoleon Bonaparte was prepared to shoot his way to a new absolutism.

It runs and runs, this drama. The National Guard was on the people’s side in Paris in 1848 but mowed them down in 1849; Petrograd crowds and mutinous soldiers and sailors brought down the tsar, allowing liberty a few months of euphoria before it was liquidated by the Bolsheviks – Bonapartism in Russian boots. Hey, you don’t make the revolutionary omelette without cracking a few eggs. Don’t get me started on China.

For two centuries and more, since the French Revolution inaugurated the romance of the streets, it has been easier to start revolutions than to finish them, to take down despotisms than to construct constitutional democracies. And this – as even elected governments are discovering from Rio to Istanbul (with doubtless more to come) – is because of the urban topography of power. Revolutions, like much else in life, are determined by location, location, location. Those who want to avoid them need to leave town when trouble is in the offing. At the height of the événements of 1968, Charles de Gaulle, a keen student of history, scarpered from Paris to seek out General Jacques Massu, should the worst come to the worst. He was repeating the tactic of Adolphe Thiers in 1871 who would march on the Paris Commune. Louis XIV never forgot the terror of having to flee with his mother from the Louvre during the Paris Fronde insurrection of 1648, which is why he chose a hunting lodge west of Paris at Versailles for the reconstruction of absolutist government. It was only when Paris marched on Versailles in November 1789 and dragged the king and queen back to town that it was all over with the old monarchy. Never get trapped in town or you will be reduced to killing your way out of a jam (the Bashar al-Assad strategy) or inevitable capitulation. If Mohamed Morsi had hopped it to Luxor and rallied support in the country outside Cairo (the only city voting decisively against his constitution) things might have worked out differently.

But, ah, they can’t resist the delusions of their presidential palaces, can they? It has always been a trade-off between the vainglorious pleasure of centralising pomp deep in the capital and becoming hostage to the crowds when things go pear-shaped. The design of the modern capital – with its boulevards, squares, parks, monumental buildings, the whole architectural rigmarole that is supposed to represent social harmony between ruler and ruled – can, with Twitter replacing the tocsin bell, turn a city into the muster-ground for instant insurrection. The old rock and roll of freedom, lovely freedom. And there is always so much fun and fellowship to be had at the fair that no one wants to think of the morning after, when happiness has decamped, the rubbish bags litter the park and the cleaner-uppers are lurking around the corner in armoured columns.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

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