Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

A revolution or not, this is the question

It takes more than deposing a ruler or a government to have a revolution, writes Mohamed Soffar

Al-Ahram Weekly

This question is neither easy nor even answerable at the moment. There is no apriori criterion for the revolution that one can simply impose on ongoing events to come up with an answer. Rather, it is the unfolding of events that will reveal what revolution as revolution can be. By this token, one can only dig out signposts the events themselves have so far revealed. In other words, to define what a revolution is one has to set limits to it; one has to practice critique of the revolution, for critique is all about assigning limits that establish the conditions for the emergence of a certain thing. However essential critique might be to our question, necessitated by the considerations of the moment, it goes contrary to the nature of revolution, which is but the transgression of limits. Thus, it is not unlikely that such an undertaking of critique, though attempting to shape the revolution by distilling its essence from current events, might seem or be considered as counter-revolutionary.

At its core, revolt is an act of insubordination that goes beyond questioning the legitimacy of the ruling authority, to transcending the internal barriers of fear created by the ruling authority, and to gathering courage in order to openly challenge the ruling authority. In a revolt, the multiple interactions between acts of subordination and insubordination move gradually from confrontation, challenge, and siege, to undermining authority. If the ultimate goal of such a grand act of insubordination is the replacement of a person, group, party, class, or even race by another, then what was played out was no more than a putsch. For the nature of the thing reveals itself in its final form. It takes more than deposing a ruler or a government to have a revolution.

Revolution involves establishing a rupture with the past, a break with all that constituted the everydayness of a certain society, in order to open up new horizons or uncharted terrains for the present, liberated from the hands of the prior ruling authority. The intended rupture allows the waves of change produced by the spontaneous explosion of insubordination to sweep most if not all domains of life. Rupture and revolution are closely linked with each other; the removal of the lid of power was only a means to unleash the internal capacities of society in order to regain its vitality and recreate its own self in terms of values, conduct, organisation, and a whole lifestyle. In this sense, there could be a real revolution without a change of government, and there could be a change of government without a real revolution.

It is highly important to underline the fact that after the removal of the ruling authority rupture does not follow automatically, because it is a wilful act to carry the results of political confrontation on to other levels of social existence. As such, the act of revolt is more akin to a strike of lightning that lights up unseen areas, after which everything falls into darkness again. The dynamics of interaction between resistance and power are similar to the interaction between lightning and darkness; both depend on each other. This means that what was initially gained by the grand act of insubordination will be swiftly lost in darkness. It follows from this that in order to instigate a rupture, which is what revolution is all about, the act of insubordination must be sustainable. Such sustainability hinges upon the fact that the attempt to transgress the limits of authority must point beyond itself and seek for transcendence. Transcendence has always been part of transgression, even if not acknowledged. On challenging the ruling authority, not just any barrier of fear is transcended, but the barrier of fear in the face of death, an act that in its defiance to authority will have to resort to a transcendental power beyond the individual in revolt. It is actually such power conceived as transcendental that constitutes individuality and the collectivity in revolt. Thus, political spirituality, the mystical current emanating from the power of transcendence, engulfing the whole scene, and charging its elements with defiance, constitutes the attractive power of the revolution that draws more supporters to its side. The existence of such a transcendental centre for the act of insubordination is not only a source of moral power, but supplies mechanisms for revolt, codes for communication and conduct, and above all a vision for the future. These elements not only make sacrifice of life — a constitutive element of any revolution — possible, they more importantly channel sacrifices in the right direction (ie rupture with the past). It goes without saying that the source of transcendence to which a revolution appeals need not be only religious but could be national as well. Take as an example Mustafa Kamel’s version of Egyptian nationalism, in which patriotism is very similar to a mystical act of appeal to, love of, and dissolution in a metaphysical entity that is the homeland (al-watan).

It is here that we encounter the gravest heroic failure of the Egyptian “revolution”. Although the revolution raised high its famous slogan “Bread, freedom, social justice”, it was devoid of any intellectual content, not to mention any appeal to anything beyond itself. More ominously, even two years after the outbreak of the revolution, and with all the confrontations and sacrifices accompanying it, there failed to emerge a unifying idea, the lack of which on the very first days helped assemble political forces, organisations, and currents of different backgrounds. The lack of a unifying idea at the moment robs the act of insubordination of its innovation and effectiveness, making it repetitive and short of imagination, if not boring. As a result, every mobilisation of forces is subject to provocation from the other side, or a commemoration of an event that is still not embedded in the collective memory. The mobilisation of forces became imprisoned in what we might call the “heap of ice” pattern. There is the great swarming of public squares, with the ritualistic shouting of slogans and calling of demands, and if no clashes with security forces result, the day loses its seriousness and enthusiasm. At the end, a number of tents are pitched as a symbolic gesture of taking over the square. On the next day, there are less numbers until the whole gathering melts away in a few days, even as the demands go unanswered. The intellectual void of the mobilisation reflects itself in the negative character of the demands without providing a real alternative for the old regime that is still ruling until now. Communist, anarchist, ultra-secular, and anti-Islamic recipes do not count as real alternatives, for they neither have real substance nor are popularly accepted but remain ravings of intellectual adolescence, used by academic amateurs and pseudo-intellectuals to compensate for their social, cultural and moral rootlessness.

Facebook, Twitter, and other virtual reality tools represent not just tools for communication and mobilisation, but a reality in its right for the “revolutionary” activists. In such a reality, catchphrases from Egyptian movies and plays are used to formulate opinions and views, a satirical act that once gave the revolutionary drama its face of laughter and proved successful in undermining the respect demanded and needed by authority. Yet, the continuous use of these clichés without replacing them with the seriousness needed for political action reflects not just the biological age of the revolutionary youth but their mental age as well.

The writer is associate professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.

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