When anatomizing revolutions, it always pays to consult the whiskered old veterans. Those trying to master a new language, wrote Karl Marx about the turmoil in France in the 19th century, invariably begin haltingly, by translating it back into the familiar tongue they already know. And with his colleague Friedrich Engels he defined a revolution as the midwife by whom the new society is born from the body of the old. Surveying the seismic-looking events in Tunis and Cairo in January and February of this year, various observers immediately began by comparing them to discrepant precedents. Was this the fall of the Arab world’s Berlin Wall? Or was it, perhaps, more like the “people power” movements in Asia in the mid-1980s? The example of Latin America, with its overdue but rapid escape from military rule in the past decades, was also mentioned. Those with longer memories had fond recollections of the bloodless “red carnation” revolution in Portugal, in 1974: a beautiful fiesta of democracy which also helped to inaugurate Spain’s emancipation from four decades in the shadow of General Franco. I was a small-time eyewitness to those “bliss was it in that dawn” episodes, having been in Lisbon in 1974, South Korea in 1985, Czechoslovakia in 1988, Hungary and Romania in 1989, and Chile and Poland and Spain at various points along the transition. I also watched some of the early stages of the historic eruption in South Africa. And in Egypt, alas—except for the common factor of human spontaneity and irrepressible dignity, what Saul Bellow called the “universal eligibility to be noble”—I can’t find any parallels, models, or precedents at all.
more from Christopher Hitchens at Vanity Fair here.