Why I am still hopeful for Egypt’s revolution

The Day of Thugs (Image from Foreign Policy)

It is said that revolution is what happens when a police officer is transformed from a legitimate authority into a man with a gun. If that’s true, then what we witnessed in Egypt yesterday is a classic counter-revolution: irregular hoodlums attacking peaceful protesters, whose only defense is the military standing by. To ask for the army’s help is to reverse the transformation, returning to these men with guns their aura of legitimate authority.

And just look at how the Egyptian government is spinning the attacks:

“Mubarak’s primary responsibility is to ensure an orderly and peaceful transfer of power. We can’t do that if we have a vacuum of power.”

Robert Springborg puts it this way:

“The threat to the military’s control of the Egyptian political system is passing. Millions of demonstrators in the street have not broken the chain of command over which President Mubarak presides. Paradoxically the popular uprising has even ensured that the presidential succession will not only be engineered by the military, but that an officer will succeed Mubarak. The only possible civilian candidate, Gamal Mubarak, has been chased into exile, thereby clearing the path for the new vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman. The military high command, which under no circumstances would submit to rule by civilians rooted in a representative system, can now breathe much more easily than a few days ago.”

If this is right, then other regimes in North Africa and the Middle East will use similar tactics to put down new revolutions, and the moment will pass. Mubarak may leave, but he will be replaced. The form of government will stay the same, and the state of emergency that has justified brutal dictatorship for 29 years since the assassination of Anwar Sadat will continue for a thirtieth. The men with guns will reassert their authority and continue their domination. And yet….

I believe that every insurrection, even an unsuccessful or a misguided one, is a cause for hope. My favorite example is the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Between October 23 and November 4, the Hungarians managed to hold off a Soviet counterattack by begging for international aid. The Soviet’s reluctance to use violence under the watchful eyes of the world kept the military stationed in Budapest from restoring communist rule immediately. Only when the British and French became embroiled in an invasion of Egypt in an effort to restore British control of the Suez Canal did the Soviets begin to violently recapture Hungary. During these twelve days of unchallenged freedom, Hungarians frantically engaged in a scramble for political leadership through an apparently spontaneous formation of representative councils. In less than two weeks, a ragtag group of literati overthrew the government and forged a vibrant political structure and an impressive resistance with the Hungarian working class. These councils appeared as an explosion of democratic self-organization that formed both the beginnings of autonomous political institutions and the core of an ardent self-defense that took the better-equipped Soviets three weeks to crush.

Hannah Arendt often referred to the spontaneous development of councils in revolutionary settings when explicating the ideal institutions of political life. On Arendt’s account, the councils of the Hungarian revolution closely resembled the Constitutional Congress and ward system proposed by Jefferson as an alternative to political parties, the ad hoc groupings of citizens during the French Revolution, and the soviets that succumbed to party unification after the Russian Revolution. Everywhere, the building blocks of politics seem to form the same basic shapes, only to be assembled into different forms due to ideologies, foreign pressures, or historical ideals. The councils predate the formation of interest groups, they federate easily and advance their most excellent members as representatives to more central councils. The councilors are principally concerned with the establishment of the polis, and so strategy often succumbs to republican altruism.

In Egypt, these councils have taken the form of neighborhood watch groups. Young and old have gathered together to thwart looters and protect antiquities. They set up roadblocks and check identification, parroting some of the more problematic elements of the police state. It is quite possible that these neighborhood groups will be co-opted by the military when it returns to power. But the situation is fluid. It is also possible that these groups will serve as the building blocks of another revolution, a different one than that currently planned by the regime.

I remain hopeful. I think perhaps that hope is something like Cornell West described:

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism, you look out the window, you say, it looks pretty good out there. Hope says, it doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Evidence doesn’t look good at all, but I’m going to go beyond the evidence, create new possibilities based on vision, become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions. Always against the odds. No guarantee whatsoever. That’s hope.”

A different example: the French Revolution was already being widely denounced as terrorism in 1798, when Immanuel Kant published The Contest of the Faculties. By this time, Robespierre and Saint-Just had gone to the guillotine, the Thermidorean reaction and the White Terror had violently suppressed the Jacobins, and France under the Directoire Exécutif had waged several wars of conquest with the soon-to-be Consul for Life Napoléon Bonaparte at its head. Yet that year, Kant wrote:

“The conflict we have seen taking place in our times in a nation of gifted people may succeed, or it may fail. It may be so filled with misery and atrocities that no right-thinking man would ever decide to make the same experiment again at such a price, even if he could hope to carry it out successfully at the second attempt. But I maintain that this revolution has aroused in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm, although the very utterance of this sympathy was fraught with danger. It cannot therefore have been caused by anything other than a moral disposition in the human race.” (Kant 1991, 182)

At the time, there was every reason to believe that the French Revolution was ‘filled with misery and atrocities,’ that a people that makes war on its tyrants will not suddenly lapse into peaceful self-governance, and that unchecked ‘sympathy’ and unthinking ‘enthusiasm’ could not themselves found a stable, free republic within which humanity’s moral disposition could be cultivated. And yet Kant tells us that the French Revolution’s success or failure pales in comparison to its capacity to excite enthusiasm in its spectators, and that, no matter what the result, it was humanity’s moral disposition, and not its base and pathological nature, which spurred both revolutionaries and sympathizers.

This was an odd position for him to take, since he wrote in the second appendix of Perpetual Peace that

“It is in the highest degree wrong if the subjects pursue their rights [through rebellion]….” (Kant 1991, 126)

For Kant, active resistance remains impermissible because it is not universalizable, and no civil constitution could truly legislate a right to revolt: on Kant’s account, the head of state cannot, by definition, be subject to the will of the people.

Yet Kant’s response to the French Revolution suggests that nature might require that human beings act contrary to the moral law in pursuit of ends that are ultimately moral. The revolutionaries’ incapacity to obediently bear injustice may reflect a natural self-regard rather than a moral duty, but this incapacity puts tyrants on notice that radical injustices may be imprudent. Thus, the sympathy of the spectator with the actor, like Kant’s sympathy with the revolutionaries, derives not from our judgment of the intentions of the revolutionaries, but from its inspirational quality. The threat of revolution holds tyrants at bay and gives the oppressed hope, and thus it can be ‘caused’ by the moral disposition even if it fails the rigorous test of universalizability that Kant applies to moral duties.

UPDATE: Peter Levine has an excellent post comparing Egypt to another Eastern European revolution: the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. For some of the pessimistic reasons with which I began this post, I don’t believe it will follow that path, but it’s still a very interesting description of the form of non-violent revolutionary strategies in the modern era.


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