The Power and Paradox of Revolutions
Seyla Benhabib 13 October 2011

I’m going to talk from the standpoint of what Immanuel Kant called the “enthusiasm” of philosophers in face of the revolution, expressing both joy and apprehension, I’ll try to situate these transformations in the wider conflicts that had been taking place in Europe and North America and I’ll advance more philosophical considerations on revolutions.

The courageous crowds in the squares in Yemen, Bengasi and Tunisia have won our hearts and minds. Early in March 2011 – those following the internet may have seen a picture of an Egyptian demonstrator holding a sign which read “Egypt supports Wisconsin workers. One world, one pain” and Wisconsin people wrote back “Thank you, we love you and congrats for your victory”. Of course there are strong differences between protests in Wisconsin and revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt since they are battling for different goals: the first are resisting the increasing pacification and humiliation of the citizenry in the United States, nearly converted into ‘Docile Bodies’ in Foucaltian terms by the ravages of American global and financial capitalism visited upon them in the last twenty years.

The Arab revolutionaries are struggling for democratic freedoms and joining the contemporary world after decades of lies, isolation and deception. But in both cases transformative hopes have been kindled; the political and economic orders have been shown to be fragile and susceptible to change. Until very recently it was said by many political scientists that the political options, not only in the Arab world but in the Muslim world in general, with Turkey being a considerable exception, were restricted to corrupt autocracies whose authority either went back to military coups as in Egypt and Libya or to royal dynasties, as in the case of dynasties families in Saudi Arabia. Contrasted to these autocracies was ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ a blanket category that obscured the history as well as politics of these communities. I think this is an extremely useless category of analysis that we have to replace by closer differentiated political descriptions.

I think what no commentator really foresaw is the emergence of a mass democratic resistance movement which is fairly modern in its understanding politics. Just as followers of Martin Luther King were educated in the black churches in the American South, and the American Civil Rights movement gained its spiritual strength from these communities, the Arab emancipation movement gained its strength from the Islamic tradition of Shahada, which means being a martyr and a witness to God at once.

There is no necessary incompatibility between politics and religious faith in these movements and their modernist aspiration. Why are their modern? First because they aim at constitutional reforms and human rights with all their paradoxes and confusionS, secondly because they want to get rid of the corrupt capitalism of the elites such as the Mubarak Bin Ali and Ghaddafi families in Libya. In Egypt there was outrage and disappointment against the privatization of the country’s resources (oil, telephone lines) by Mubarak and his family.

Some of the youth of these countries who were at the forefront of the revolution had themselves been students and workers in Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA. Their parents or relatives May have been guest workers in these countries as well as in the rich countries of the Gulf these young people knew very well what lay beyond their borders and they revolted to join the contemporary world. Much has been said about the transnational media and the so called social media in these revolutions. I think we really don’t know enough about the political organizational agency behind these transformations.

In Egypt there was also an organized core of militants who were trained in civil disobedience tactics, and at least at the beginning of the demonstrations they knew how to avoid violence. One interesting empirical detail that was brought to my attention through a very interesting sociological essay by my colleague Jeff Alexander at Yale is that in a population of 80 million there were apparently 20 million of computers. Egypt is an incredibly wired country and has also hosted the annual Wikipedia convention a few years before. The Mubarak regime despite itself ended up wiring the country and provided access to the transnational media. This does not apply to Tunisia.

I have so far expressed enthusiasm for these transformations – let me now state some apprehensions in terms of four well-known typologies of reflections on revolution. First, we know since Edmund Burke’s critique oF the French revolution that supposedly any violent intervention in the providential evolution of history is likely to produce itself an unleashing of violence and counter-violence that revolutionaries themselves cannot control. So far, both Egypt and Tunisia have been spared this fate – Libya, Yemen, and recently Syria, may follow the burkean paradigm.

Second, Hegel himself, under the influence of what he saw transpire in Jacobin France, formulated another significant critique of revolutionary logics in particular the example of Robespierre whose ‘republic of virtue’ turned into a ‘republic of terror’ was on Hegel’s mind.

This dynamic is unleashed when the contending social forces make a claim to speak in the name of the ‘the universal will’ of the people whom they alone are said to represent, but argues Hegel, when dust settles on the revolution and a particular group alone emerges claiming to represent the general will it ends up expressing only the particular hegemony of that group and its vision and it unleases terror, exclusion and marginalization of the others.

This dynamic is unfolding in Tunisia between Islamists and secular forces concerning the roles of sharia and law and women’s rights, the serving of alcohol in public spaces, etc. In Egypt the social forces of revolt don’t really have their own party; The military is the hegemonic force and the Muslim brotherhood which was originally not leading the revolution is showing some electoral success. The referendum on the constitution was precipitous and the people are still on the streets but so far Egypt as well has not been converted into a Republic of virtue or terror.

The last two typologies derive from Arendt: watching the revolutionaries in Tunis, Egypt and to a lesser extent in Bahrain one cannot but recall Arendt’s phrase that the revolutionary tradition is like a Fata Morgana in the desert which always appears most unexpectedly. You cannot really predict when it will come and it always surprises us with its spontaneity. This revolutionary spirit was brought to life with the symbolism and actuality of the public square. The Egyptian people represented itself to itself in Tahrir Square; it organized a free space, both in opposition to the present regime and in anticipation of what would come, with people engaging in great acts of generosity, providing food, medical care, entertainment and even cleaning the square itself. What other act of taking possession of a public space can express it better than this simple gesture of cleaning it as if it were your own house? This was clearly a totally Arendtian moment of communicative power achieved through self organization.

The final typology, which I am stating in the spirit of Arendt, recalls to mind some of Hegel’s and Burke’s concern. This may be named the ‘Paradox of Revolutionary Beginnings.’ Revolutionary power that destroys the old order must do so in the name of another, higher kind of authority. But where does this authority derive from? Particularly modern revolutions since the French and the American ones do not have transcendent sources of authority but see that authority grounded upon the will of the people, and exercised in accordance with a secularized understanding of natural law. In all the Arab revolutions, we see this paradox of revolutionary authority unfolding; some want to appeal to the sharia as the transcendent authority beyond the political, thus appointing an element outside the political to obtain a sort of legitimacy so that the revolution can stabilize itself. Others, see the military as such a transcendent force. And still others, and we don’t know whether they are in the majority, are trying to stabilize the political through a new constitution and new elections. The latter is the only political way to stabilize the instability of revolutions, but the process still is wide open.



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