TitleWhat's next after a revolution?

Revolutions: Promises of Countries Yet to Come

31 Jan 2011

■ Mohammadbagher Forough
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“La révolution … fait appel à la nouvelle terre, au nouveau peuple.” (Deleuze & Guattari) (1)

The Jasmine Revolution blossomed in Tunisia. Another revolution is taking root in Egypt. The routinized horror and humiliation for Tunisians has been disrupted, at least temporarily. The specter of this revolution has overflowed Tunisian territories and is haunting other countries in the region, setting in motion waves of mass protests in Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, etc. Questions arise. What is a revolution about? What caused the Tunisian revolution? Why is this spirit contagious? Why is it instilling fear in the hearts of the dictators in the region? Do we (the non-Tunisians, non-Egyptians) have a duty to care about what’s happening in those countries? If so, what can we do to help those people? What to do after a revolution succeeds? I will address some of these questions in what follows.

What is a revolution? Albert Camus, the philosopher of rebellion, detects in any revolutionary act in the realm of politics, a reaffirmation of something beyond the individual, and nicely distorts the Cartesian principle: “I rebel – therefore we exist”. (2) “We” is the human. Revolution, even if carried out by one individual, is a collective act and has a collective dream. Even if you revolt individually against a tyrannical boss, you are performing a collective act, an act that completes your individuality; you demand respect for your ‘human’ dignity, and with that you are automatically in the domain of the collective. A Revolution comes into being by individuals, in individual countries (say, in Tunisia), against a tyrannical system embodied by an individual (say, Ben Ali or Mubarak) or an oligarchy (i.e. body of individuals, say, those governing Saudi Arabia or Iran), but it goes beyond that; it represents a value or a ‘something’ that is indeed higher than the revolutionary person, which completes her individuality, and which though not clearly determined, redefines personhood, redefines humanity, thereby relating all freedom-loving humans to one another.

Revolution, even if carried out by one individual, is a collective act and has a collective dream

What is that something, ideal, value, or belief behind a revolution? It is an affirmative NO, a NO to humiliation, enslavement, oppression, a NO that says YES to freedom and life, a life that defies enslavement of lives, of humans. Revolution bespeaks an ideal destiny, evokes a higher value, and undertakes the task of mapping out a country yet to come, in point of fact, countries yet to come. (3) This is why the revolutionary spirit is contagious. It’s a wake-up call to other peoples (e.g. Egyptians and Yemenis) telling them that that ideal concerns not only ‘them’ (the Tunisians) but ‘us’ as well, that in the large scheme of things there is no ‘them’, and we all belong to a big ‘us’, the human realm. In this sense, ‘we are all Tunisians,’ ‘we are all Egyptians.’ And the petty dictators understand this, which is why they are scared.

If the preceding is true, it follows that not only are the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, and Iranian revolutions (or any revolution against tyranny, for that matter) relevant to us but they touch on the very core of our lives and our politics. To be more precise, we can say that revolutions are political; politics is by definition the domain of the collective. Revolutions, being political, are therefore collective. Collectivity, being a human concept, cannot be confined to territorial (e.g. national) boundaries. A revolution summons forth a new and free country. A free country cannot be so in an enslaved world. It therefore summons forth a new world. A new world entails a new people. The new people (that are yet to come, that may never come) cannot be myopic “individuals” (as most of us are), but are humans who see their very individuality as simultaneously conditioning and conditioned by the existence of a true and free collectivity, a true and free world, in which as long as there is one oppressed individual in the world, none of us is truly free. The formula is therefore right: the Tunisians rebelled, therefore the Egyptians are, Yemenis are, therefore we all are.

In this light, we should be concerned about oppressed people, respond to their call. How? The most general answer would be ‘start from whatever civil you can do, wherever you can do it.’ Some suggestions: we need to spread the word in the media and among the people around us, and take part in rallies in support of those people. Academics should write and talk about it. We must demand that our politicians not support “friendly dictators” (Mubarak, Saudi family, etc.), and teach them that the idea of ‘friendly dictators’ is (oxy)moronic! That the enemy to a free world is not only Ahmadinejad and Bashar Asad (“unfriendly dictators”), but every dictator in every oppressed country.

The Egyptians, Algerians, Yemenis, and Jordanians are already on the street. Iranians for a long while now. But instead of supporting such people, many Western governments secretly support those dictators, providing them with “military and security assistance”. The French government stood behind Ben Ali until the last moment. U.S. has been providing financial and military assistance to Mubarak for decades. IMF diktats wreak havoc to the lives of those people. Secret operations, international sanctions, and threats of war are making life and rebellion against those tyrants doubly difficult for the people. This is what politicians do here. Even if that human ideal is not morally compelling for some of us to be concerned about oppressed people, the very fact that our own Western societies vote for politicians who support such dictators makes us, the citizens, partially responsible for the miseries of those people. We need to change this trend; start from ourselves and our politicians, that is.

What’s next after a revolution? Allow me a serious caveat here. Revolutions, history has taught us, are pregnant with dictatorial potentials. The French (1789), Bolshevik (1917), and Iranian (1979) revolutions are the most obvious cases in point. The best way to avoid such a turn of events is to think of a revolution not as an event but a process and keep the revolutionary spirit alive. If Tunisians want to steer clear of this danger they need to learn from history, and put in place systems of check and control that are not prone to totalitarian tendencies, depose those from the previous system in a civil fashion, keep a vigilant eye on the new politicians, and react civilly to any sign of political misconduct. A revolution is a beginning not an end. It is a work in progress. It takes self-criticism for it to survive. If followed self-critically, revolutions have emancipatory potentials too: The American Revolution, India’s experience with Ghandi (1947), South Africa’s with Mandela (1994) are famous cases in point. There is, therefore, hope in revolutions.

Throughout history many a revolution has been hijacked by vindictive revolutionaries

Another way to stop a revolution from turning into despotism is to not let vengefulness and thirst for blood be the driving forces behind it, especially after it succeeds. Throughout history many a revolution has been hijacked by vindictive revolutionaries, who started to execute those from the previous political system and then opponents in the new system. The French revolution with its Reign of Terror and the infamous ‘guillotine’ is an obvious instance of an ideal gone horribly awry. Similar was the Iranian revolution (1979) with all the brutal executions of those from the previous regime and the political dissidents in the new system. Vengefulness and obsession with the past, if taken as the defining trait of a revolutionary movement, become its future modus operandi.

A revolution is a departure from the past and looking forward to future. Instead of vengeance, Hannah Arendt’s idea of ‘forgiveness’ (and I would add ‘hope’) should be the driving force of any successful revolution. Having fled the Nazi Germany as a Jew, upon returning she came to forgive her teacher, Martin Heidegger, who was a registered Nazi. What is more, she introduced the concept of ‘forgiveness’ to political philosophy, the idea being that we can (and should) forgive the person (but not the act), that forgiveness is in fact a ‘duty’. So, the Tunisians and all of us should be wary of this danger. Justice should be carried out civilly, but the point is that vengeance and death should not provide the fuel for a revolutionary machine. The earth cannot become ‘la nouvelle terre’ with more blood. Nor can a people become the promised ‘nouveau peuple’ if vengeful.

There is a lot more to say about a lot more, especially what caused the Tunisian revolution or what started those in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, etc. But suffice it for the moment to quote Victor Hugo, himself a political exile during the French dictatorship of his time, who wrote: “When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.” This can explain the cause of almost all revolutions. If revolution in its different forms is a right in the face of tyranny (and I can’t see why it should not be), Egyptians, Yemenis, Kurds, Algerians, Iranians, and all other oppressed people should and will repeat the Tunisian experience, hopefully soon, hopefully as ‘a work in progress’, and hopefully with ‘forgiveness’, and ‘hope’.

(1) “Revolution …. summons forth a new earth, and a new people” (Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?)
(2) “Dans l’épreuve quotidienne qui est la nôtre, la révolte joue le même rôle que le ‘cogito’ dans l’ordre de la pensée: elle est la première évidence. Mais cette évidence tire l’individu de sa solitude. Elle est un lien commun qui fonde sur tous les hommes la première valeur. Je me révolte, donc nous sommes” (Albert Camus, L’Homme révolté)
(3) Inspired by “Écrire n’a rien à voir avec signifier, mais avec arpenter, cartographier, même des contrées à venir.” (Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Mille Plateaux)

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  1. Andreas Moser says:

    This explains why Iranians haven’t achieved what Tunisians have: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/why-tunisia-but-not-iran/ It’s embarrassing that the opposition in Iran ASKS for PERMISSION for a protest.

  2. Mohamad Forough says:

    Hi Andreas! i read some of your texts on your blog! nice one! as for the case of Iran (as compared with Tunisia) i don’t think the comparison holds. History never repeats itself anywhere.. it rhymes, though! as far as the rhyme (between Iran and Tunisia) goes, what you mention (Iranians asking for permission) is one reason among others as to why Iranians have failed and the Tunisians have not. as for your realistic and sad conclusion that we can stop holding our breath for Iran, i cannot but agree totally! whathappened in Tunisia and Egypt doesnt have anything to do with Iran. nor will it produce ripple effects in Iran…. nor can iranians claim to be parents or godfathers of what’s happening in the region… that would be delusional… but many thanks for your comments. let’s keep in touch

  3. AMIR says:

    I was inspired by your article Dr.forough as I was inspired by your conversation long time ago..wel done

  4. Mohamad Forough says:

    thanks Amir, you are to kind

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