“The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Last week brought two events into focus: the annual July 4th celebration commemorating the American Revolution of 1776 preceded one day before by the overthrow of the first freely elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Although on the surface there seems little connecting these events, thinking about Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the former may bring forth some interesting points about revolutions and the foundation of modern democracy to light, which may be relevant to the evolving situation in Egypt.
In On Revolution, Arendt put forth a controversial interpretation of revolution and its relationship to violence, a theory that, contra popular opinion, lauded the success of the American while decrying the French Revolution’s legacy that “a revolution must devour its own children” as if terror were its inevitable course. The success of the American Revolution for Arendt resulted from its “deep concern with forms of government,” a concern she saw equally in the “initial stages of the French Revolution.” But when the concern with political solutions to the problem of tyranny was, in her assessment, overwhelmed by “the social question”—the problems of necessity, of abject need, confronting the “multitude of the poor—the French Revolution abandoned the task of “building a new body politic” in favor of searching for a more immediate, and, in her view, less political solution to the problem of poverty. “It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom,” Arendt wrote. Yet, she emphasized, there was nothing inevitable about this change of course.
To Arendt, any suggestion that a revolution would, and presumably must, take a predictable course was an example of ideological thinking that masked the genuine meaning of revolution. As she wrote, “Violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.”
By every aspect of this definition, the Arab Spring uprising that sparked Egypt into full-scale protests and regime change to remove an autocratic ruler two years ago, and embark on an unpredictable path to “bring about the formation of a new body politic” constitutes a revolution in the Arendtian sense. But what matters is not whether the extraordinary events in Egypt fit her definition, but what Arendt’s exercise in thinking about revolutions, their successes and failures, can tell us about the great difficulties, challenges, and opportunities involved in Egyptians’ struggle to “build a new house where freedom can dwell.”
Modern revolutionaries face the enormous task of bringing into the public realm those who have been excluded from participation in it and, if they are to avoid a state of permanent war and violence, simultaneously creating a relatively stable set of institutions to organize and enable the expression of different points of view. A few days ago, the New York Times trumpeted the current crisis in Egypt under a headline proclaiming there were “two Egypts” locked in a raging conflict with each other over legitimate rulership of the country. Both Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi forces claim to embody the demand for representation for “all Egypt.” Representing the point of view of the anti-Morsi forces, a participant in the renewed protests justified the removal of Morsi: “They tried to rule the whole country for themselves…But if you want to rule Egypt, you have to rule for everyone or the people will stand against you.” (NYT July 6, 2013) In fact, pro-Morsi factions echoed similar sentiments by contending not only that there had been a military coup overthrowing a legitimately elected leader, but also that the removal of Morsi was designed to push them out of the political process. And this morning, the ultra-Conservative Al Nour party announced its decision to withdraw from further participation in efforts to form an interim government.
Whether the election of Morsi itself had been premature—he was brought to power with the support of only 24% of the voting electorate and pushed through a constitution largely created by the Muslim Brotherhood—its aftermath suggests that the process of creating a new form of government was far from complete. Soon after he took power, many different groups complained that Morsi appeared to have set himself up as a dictator in the mere five months he’d been in power. Clearly, in Arendtian terms, the rebellion started in 2011 had not yet resulted in the “truly revolutionary element” in constitution-making, which lies not in the creation of limited government, but in the act of a people (here Arendt quotes Thomas Paine) “constituting a government.”
There is an enormous difference, Arendt wrote, “in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government.” But “the people”, for Arendt, implied all factions, all parts of the polity, had to be involved in the process; a government not only “for” the people, but also “of” and “by” it. The current conflagrations in Egypt represent yet another stage of opportunity in the effort to revolutionize the Egyptian polity in this direction, a stage which had harbingers of its arrival, but no predictable outcome.
The great difficulty Egypt faces is not only the vast gap in different groups’ understandings of who “the people” are, and the different degrees of organized mobilization of those groups, but also derives from the fundamentally opposed interpretations of which appropriate principles—Islamist, moderate or more conservative; non-Islamist; pluralist?—should legitimate a new polity in Egypt. And this difficulty is only compounded by an expressed urgency to find solutions to a deteriorating economy. Arendt would have hoped that the urgency of immediate needs would not overwhelm the revolutionary process of “constituting a government.”
It turns out, Arendt argued, that once “the source of authority had been severed from the colonial body politic in the New World,” the key problem confronting the American Revolution “turned out to be the establishment not of power but of authority.” How this authority (not to be confused with either power or violence) will be established in Egypt depends in the long run on all sides being able both to engage in discussions of principle, and not only contests over power or need, as well as participate in the search for institutionalized mechanisms to stabilize what Arendt called “the tremendous strength inherent in mutual promises.” If specific parties withdraw from this process, or persist in vilifying one group of the other, the violence that is now occurring may not yet be stemmed.
-Kathleen B. Jones