How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
There are worse places to begin a search for the sources of Egypt's current political earthquake than in the company of a middle-aged French soldier imprisoned in a German stalag during World War II. For the prisoner, Fernand Braudel, captivity felt -- if not like an eternity -- at least like an awfully longue durée. At the time he was captured, Braudel was well into his research for a doctoral dissertation on the history of the Mediterranean. Isolated by barbed wire, he grieved not only for his freedom but also for his research notes and books. Writing atop a single plank of wood, Braudel filled the small pages of school lesson books from memory.
Published shortly after the war, the finished work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, now stands as a landmark of historical methodology. La longue durée, or "long haul of history," is Braudel's central insight. From this perspective, real historical change is so slow as to seem immeasurable. The barely perceptible changes in climate, demography, and geology; the gradual formation of religious and cultural practices; and the slow growth of trade networks or agricultural practices -- all of this, Braudel held, is the real stuff of human affairs. Politics was relegated to the ghetto of l'histoire événementielle, or "event-based history." Rarely meeting a metaphor he did not like, Braudel also described political events as "fireflies flitting across a stage, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion."
Oblivion seems too harsh a prognosis for the events at Tahrir Square. It seems improbable that the effects of the uprising will have only the equivalent two-month lifespan of a firefly. The demand of Egyptians -- young and old, men and women, secularists and faithful -- for democracy and dignity has rocked the foundations of an authoritarian and brutal state that seemed, just a month ago, as stable as the pyramids.
Yet, because pyramids crumble slowly, Braudel's approach offers an ideal vantage point from which to view the events in Egypt. In The Mediterranean, he warned against the attractions of event-based history. Like the foam of waves carried by the tides of deep history, this level catches our attention but then evaporates before our eyes. And although events are exciting, they wedge the observer into the same "dimensions of the anger, dreams, and illusions" felt by those living through them. Instead, a student of history must chart the "underlying currents, often noiseless, whose direction can be discerned only by watching them over long periods of time."
Braudel's (occasionally mixed) metaphors aside, from such observations a Mediterranean world emerges in which men and women do not make history so much as history makes them. Here, geography is teleology: weather, land, and location leave a deep imprint on human communities. Thus, although in millennia past, increasingly independent landowners flourished in the forested lands of Europe, the wealthy few held sway over the Nile Delta. Its vast alluvial stretches lent themselves not just to wheat farming but to the rigid and hierarchical rule required for effective land management. For much of ancient history, the pharaoh was political theory, and Egypt was, in the words of the celebrated Egyptologist Cyril Aldred, "a gift from the pharaoh." The population's only options were resignation and acceptance.
Whereas the pharaohs, in a symbolic ritual, used to eat the gods, today's ordinary Egyptians are preparing to consume their pharaoh-like leader and bestow on themselves the gift of democracy. Such an event would seem to reflect the deepest of ruptures with the past. But a student of the longue durée might echo Alexis de Tocqueville's claim in The Old Regime and the French Revolution that these events are, in reality, new names given to the persistence of centuries-old political and social practices. The spasms of centralization under the revolutionaries, for example, built upon earlier efforts by the monarchy to pull regions into the capital's orbit.
So, too, perhaps, can today's events be read as a continuation of the "gradual diminishing" of the pharaohs over the millennia. In a word, the earlier stages of incarnation and filiation that Braudel observed may have helped lay the ground for today's push toward democratization. After all, as the pharaoh, once a god, became a man, autocrats became vulnerable and open to criticism. So, too, does the largely motley resistance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime issue, in part, from structures, much older than the current police state, that never allowed the people a voice. And it is no surprise that protests belong not just to Egypt but the entire Mediterranean. Braudel scorned national borders -- the superficial lines of event-based history -- and instead privileged far greater units. The Mediterranean, he argued, shared a common sea, climate, and geography.
Braudel died in 1985, on the eve of the Internet revolution -- the phenomenon that is now championed as the cause of the political revolutions roiling the Middle East. A good Braudelian would be skeptical of such claims. Human communication has always tied the Mediterranean together: in the early modern era, it was through land and sea routes, or, as Braudel called them, "the infrastructure of all coherent society." Like contemporary skeptics of the "Twitter revolution," such as Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, he warned against the modern fallacy of thinking that newer and seemingly more efficient modes of contact would trump older forms. Even after the advent of shorter and faster sea routes, land routes persisted across the Mediterranean. When Braudel concluded that "the whole Mediterranean consists of movement in space," he would surely not have included virtual space.
Indeed, Braudel dwelt on the lastingness and thickness of human exchanges. Ultimately, he believed that if "man was prepared to make an effort and pay a price," cultural values would come together and the world could progress. Today, Egyptians, Tunisians, and others are making an effort and paying a price. But even in victory, their gains will not be neither irreversible nor irrevocable; no less important, change may be expressed in a wide range of political and philosophical forms. The rest of us can only begin to understand what their efforts might mean by being a bit more Braudelian -- namely, by standing still long enough to explore the deeper levels, instead of falling for the superficial froth of the news, which insists that the waves move the depths.