The uprising in Egypt over the last three weeks has already become defined, at least provisionally, as a revolution. The historical irony of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation date, February 11th, has already been noted by plenty of observers — it is the same date as the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Iranian Revolution is one of the possible points of historical contrast for the Egyptian uprising, but aside from initial similarities, it’s not a convincing comparison for many.
If there is an appropriate historical analogy, perhaps it is the East German revolution of 1989. This point has already been made (in a somewhat self-serving manner) by Angela Merkel, but it bears a closer look. Most obviously, the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo echo the Alexanderplatz demonstration on November 4th, 1989. That demonstration was one of the pivotal moments of the Wende, the process of German unification, and initiated the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe.
Both involved hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens peacefully confronting an obstinate dictatorship; both appealed for democratic pluralism and a transformation of the existing order, and both had a sense of humour. (The Alexanderplatz sign below is a pun in German on ‘unbegrenzt’ (‘unlimited’) and Egon Krenz, the communist leader. The Egyptian guy just loves his memes).
The revolutions of 1989 led, indirectly but ultimately, to the collapse of the USSR. The Stalinist regimes went into the dustbin of history, and Europe was transformed.
At the moment, no-one knows what clear results will emerge from Egypt’s upheaval. To put it reductively, and bluntly: will Egypt’s transformation be more ‘German’ or more ‘Iranian’?