Hope and Disillusion in Egypt

Delacroix, "Liberty Guiding the People"

Delacroix, “Liberty Guiding the People”

After my optimism about the Arab Spring, I have been very discouraged by the Egyptian military’s coup and on-going massacre of protesters. Watching first the people triumph over Mubarak, then seeing them hold elections, then seeing the Muslim Brotherhood abuse its power, and now watching the military take over, I have wondered whether this is what it was like to track the aftermath of the French Revolution, with all its twists and turns. That parallel in turn took me to William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth was an early supporter of the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon, however, would ultimately turn him into a staunch conservative. Looking back in 1805, he expresses his initial hopes in ways that capture what many of us felt about Egypt two years ago:

But ’twas a time when Europe was rejoiced,
France standing on the top of golden hours,
And human nature seeming born again. (The Prelude, VI)

This is followed up by his disillusion. The particular historical incident he has in mind is how France, after defending itself against Europe’s monarchies, went on the attack and invaded Switzerland:

But now, become oppressors in their turn,
Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defense
For one of conquest, losing sight of all
Which they had struggled for… (The Prelude, X)

And further on:

Have been distressed to think of what she [the Revolution] once promised.

It took France almost a hundred years, with various fits and starts, before it firmly established a permanent democracy. Pray that it doesn’t take Egypt this long.

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  • sue

    I appreciate your showing us Wordsworth in his political context. I’m caught by how poetry can function as lament. And how, like much good literature (of course Beowulf comes to mind) we find ourselves echoing sentiments that have been true through the ages.

    Interestingly, I finished Isabel Allende’s Zorro not long ago, and the French also has a presence in Spain – Napoleon’s brother is placed on the throne after the king is sent into exile, and in her novel, the infamous “Chevelier” shows up to mingle with the wealthy families…


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