Take a major revolution—American, French, almost any one will do—trace back its development, and odds are you’ll find a café buzzing with intellectual conversation, free thought and political malcontent. From Europe’s Age of Enlightenment to the Arab Spring, global transformation has been launched from the coffeehouse, where revolution, it seems, is always brewing.
It’s a familiar scene: sleep-deprived students in university garb lounging on café couches, studying note cards and downing lattes. Its precedent dates to 17th-century England, when coffeehouses were nicknamed penny universities for the intellectual exchange and political debate one could gain for the price of admission—one cent, and that included the coffee. (At this tuition even the lower classes could afford a higher education.)
The café atmosphere, charged with youthful idealism, political indignation and caffeine, has stirred student revolutions throughout history. In 1989 during the Velvet Revolution, a 43-day student-led protest that overthrew Czechoslovakia’s Communist government, participants established de facto headquarters in Prague’s Café Slavia, using it for strategizing and reassembly after clashes. (The student leader Martin Mejstrik edited the newspaper Café—its name a nod to the freedom of expression fostered by the coffeehouse.) In Les Misérables, a similar university coffeehouse culture forms in the Café Musain, the Paris meeting place for the student revolutionary society Friends of the ABC. (“ABC” puns on the French abaissé—“abased” or “lowly.”) Its members fight and ultimately die in the antimonarchical June Rebellion in 1832. Author Victor Hugo based Marius, a revolution-spirited Musain habitué, on his own university-age self.
The cafés of Paris were political hotbeds in the 18th century, attracting such coffee-drinking radicals and men of letters as Voltaire and Honoré de Balzac. (The latter, who frequented the Café Foy, was allegedly done in by his 50-cup-a-day coffee habit.) It was outside Café Foy that a young lawyer named Camille Desmoulins delivered his riling “To arms, to arms!” speech in 1789, spreading antiaristocratic fervor among the crowd. That street-side discourse helped provoke the storming of the Bastille prison two days later that sparked the French Revolution.
In 1878 Victor Hugo delivered a speech on the centenary of Voltaire’s death in which he extolled Paris, with its history as a battlefield during times of social uprising, as a model of triumph over oppression. Born after the French Revolution, Hugo made the period leading up to Paris’s 1832 June Rebellion (a.k.a. the Second French Revolution) the backdrop of Les Misérables, in which he examined the insurrectionist sentiment from inside Paris’s Café Musain. Hugo based his student rebels’ fictional organization, Friends of the ABC, on the historical Society of the Rights of Man, established in 1832 to promote the French Revolution’s principles of equality and human rights.
A Persian legend claims the prophet Muhammad cured his narcolepsy with a cup of coffee served by the archangel Gabriel. Beginning in 2010, as political frustration simmered in Cairo’s Café Riche, Tunis’s Théâtre de l’Étoile du Nord and other coffeehouses, the brew had a role in awakening the oppressed multitudes during the Arab Spring revolts. Arab coffeehouses (qahwas), which first appeared in the 15th century, initially doubled as educational centers, where lecturers read aloud from newspapers to a largely illiterate clientele. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political organization whose candidate Mohamed Morsi replaced Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s president following the 2011 revolution (only to be ousted two years later), was founded in 1928 as a qahwa-based educational program.
Coffee and coffeehouses spread from the Arab world to Europe in the 16th century. The French Revolution, which fundamentally transformed France’s existing governmental structure, essentially began in a café on the evening of July 12, 1789, when a young political activist, standing atop a table outside Paris’s Café Foy, electrified a crowd with a call to arms against the French aristocracy. The Foy soon became a monarchist stronghold, but the revolution, like those rippling across the Arab world, would not be stopped.
Coffee is an energizing substitute for spirits in Islamic regions, where the Qur’an prohibits alcohol consumption. In Christian European nations, which have no such prohibition, the standard breakfast drink was historically an intoxicant. Beer and wine were safer than the nonpotable water that was available, but the custom suggests many began their day under the influence. When coffee was introduced from the Arab world around 1600, with its stimulating influence on mental clarity and productivity, it soon supplanted beer at breakfast. The timing—not surprisingly, say some historians—coincided with the intellectual revolution called the Age of Enlightenment. Philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who helped develop and spread the scientific method, a hallmark of the Enlightenment, tested coffee’s medicinal and mental benefits. An anonymous Enlightenment-era poem denounces “foggy ale” and praises coffee:
That Grave and Wholesome Liquor,
That heals the stomach, makes the genius quicker,
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad,
And cheers the Spirits, without making Mad.
The Catholic Church condemned coffee as a “devil’s drink” for its ties to Islam—until Pope Clement VIII tasted it in 1600 and reversed the censure, declaring, “As Christians, our power is greater than Satan’s, so we shall make coffee our own.”
Did coffee fuel the Enlightenment? It’s possible. Coffee (a stimulant) became popular in Europe in the 1600s, around the start of that cultural and scientific awakening, replacing beer (a depressant) as the daytime drink of choice. Coffeehouses also replaced alehouses around this time as meeting centers for Enlightenment thinkers. The first meetings of the Royal Society of London, a loose association of innovative scientists (physicist Isaac Newton was a later member), were held in Tillyard’s coffeehouse in Oxford. The Club of Honest Whigs, a clan of intelligentsia headed by future U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin, met in the London Coffeehouse, where during one caffeinated brainstorm Franklin encouraged Joseph Priestly, a young scientist, to perform the electricity experiments that influenced nearly all further discoveries in the field.
The Age of Enlightenment prized knowledge over ignorance, reason over faith, science over superstition, and an elected democracy over an inherited monarchy. In parts of the American colonies during the revolution—itself a political product of the Enlightenment’s antimonarchical, egalitarian philosophies—“enlightenment” also meant favoring coffee over tea. Because of tea’s association with Britain, a colonist’s choice of tea exposed him as a loyalist, while coffee implied he was a patriot.
Occupy Wall Street, a movement protesting income inequality and corporate political power that began in New York City in 2011, didn’t start in a café, as many Arab Spring demonstrations had earlier that year (although protesters used cafés as offsite meeting spots after police dispersed their Zucotti Park encampment in Manhattan’s financial district). Cafés did, however, contribute to the development of Wall Street as a center of capitalism. The first New York Stock Exchange brokers met and traded in Wall Street’s Tontine Coffee House in the early 1790s, a period when coffeehouses symbolized American independence and a rejection of Britain’s tea-drinking culture. Tontine’s bustling activity rendered the streets outside nearly impassable, as they were perpetually clogged with the carts and wheelbarrows of traders. (The vehicles have changed but traffic and traders still swarm there today).
The media alternately panned Occupy as a congregation of lazy, unemployed hippies and sensationalized it as the second American Revolution. There are similarities between the two American revolts, particularly in the protesters’ economic grievances, but Occupy was no deadly revolution. In fact, its only fatality was the Milk Street Café, which had to close shop when the demonstrations spread to its sidewalk and obstructed business.
At Café Riche, a Cairo coffeehouse with bullet holes peppering its shutters, hookah smoke intermingles with espresso steam, and patrons discuss art, literature and Egypt’s uncertain future. Two blocks away is Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, during which the café transformed into a makeshift triage center and provided shelter for tear-gassed and wounded demonstrators. The café is one of dozens that served as situation room, battlefield, headquarters, rallying point or infirmary across the Middle East and northern Africa during the Arab Spring uprisings. Only a fraction of the region’s populace had internet access, and cafés provided the Wi-Fi and computers participants needed to reach and be reached by the world. Embattled president Hosni Mubarak, not unlike the Egyptian sultans centuries earlier who banned cafés to thwart their organizing potential, briefly shut down Egypt’s internet to impede the unrest.
Online social networking has changed the way revolutions work. One does not take it to the streets today unless one has first taken it to cyberspace. The Egyptian Revolution was launched as a Facebook event. Occupy Wall Street, which trailed the Arab Spring by mere months, was a trending Twitter hashtag, #occupywallstreet, before it was a revolution.