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Dr. Bishara's speech at the Seventh Al Jazeera Forum

Mar 20, 2013

Dr. Azmi Bishara delivered the main address on the second day of public sessions at the Seventh Al Jazeera Forum, "The Arab World in Transition: Opportunities and Threats", held from the 16 to the 18 March, 2013 in Doha, Qatar.  The English translation of Dr. Bishara's speech, titled "On Revolution and the Transitional Phase", follows below:
 
On Revolution and the Transitional Phase
 
The very title of this symposium gives the impression that all countries within the Arab world are going through a transition. In other words, that there is a transitional phase which affects all of the Arab countries, not only those which have seen popular revolutions. So far as I have understood this correctly, I am in complete agreement, and concur that the transitional phase will affect even those Arab countries which appear on the surface to be calm and stable. It will affect all Arab states regardless of whether or not they are implementing reforms. No Arab state, not a single regime, will be left unchanged. This is further corroboration of the existence of a common politico-media realm-briefly speaking, an arena for mutual exchange-which binds all of the Arab countries together. The commonalities of all of the Arab states, in terms of a lack democracy, decrepit authoritarianism, corruption and the intervention of the security apparatus in political affairs provide only a partial explanation for the existence of this common realm. The other part of the explanation is in the language and culture shared by all Arabs, and which are embedded in their common internal, structural self-conscious.  This common language and culture facilitates the sharing of sorrows, disappointments and complaints, which later evolve into criticism and protest and, ultimately, into revolution.
 
What a wondrous thing a revolution is. It is a historical event, by virtue of the fact that it is an actual, materialist, immediate and tangible incident, and one which, with the aid of the communications revolution and the melting of time zones, we can all become real-time spectators to. Yet a revolution also lies outside of the path of history, since it contradicts hitherto apparent chains of causality. It forms a break in the normal process of history, in which subjectivity is subsumed into objective reality. "Revolutions" are one type of  rare occurrence in which groups of citizens act with complete freedom of will, and in which those citizens' rejection of the status quo is turned into a challenge against the standing regime. When citizens thus challenge the regime during a revolution, they do so without fear for their lives.
 
Defined by collective action, a revolution also forms a historic moment which takes a certain group of intellectuals and pundits unawares, leaving them confused. This group then reacts by faulting the revolution its unpredictability. In some cases, they declare that the revolution was never a revolution after all, but rather some form of random, arbitrary act and one which is inherently unruly-thus absolving them of not having foreseen the event.
 
To understand it by a value judgment, a revolution is an act of opposition to an extant injustice, during which neutrality is no longer an acceptable choice, and for which support is a virtue. This is why all those who awaited the revolution support it when it appears, yet there remains a diversity of opinion towards the revolution within the intelligentsia.
 
With regards to those critics who vacillate about supporting the revolution, their dyspeptic anger has its own reasons. Perhaps it was the fact that the revolutionary masses did not consult with them first, or maybe these scholars' own critiques of the regime-once deemed heroic-seem less remarkable compared to the waves of youth who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the revolution. This novelty of the intellectuals who begrudge the masses for not seeking their opinion, and for rebelling before going through an accepted cycle of critique presents its own dangers.
 
Besides this first lot of hesitant thinkers, there is another type who are openly hostile to the revolution. It is not, of course, that this latter type claims to support tyranny-who would admit to such a thing anyway?-but instead their opposition to the revolution derives from their belief that the revolution is the result of a conspiracy. Just as happens to be the case with all other conspiracy theories, they cannot quite reveal all the details to us just yet, but they are willing to try and make out its details, more or less, for our benefit of course. This type peddles its speculative, irrational and ignorant guesswork wherever they go, a complete abrogation of the duties of the intellectual. They are not to be confused with conservative intellectuals, who at  least defend certain principles, such as order and tradition, and do not demean themselves by peddling hearsay. Instead, the objecting, regime-aligned thinkers are merely the mouthpieces of the rotten security apparatus they represent.
 
In terms of true critical intellectuals, the real test which the revolution poses to them is two-fold. One challenge is to avoid finding oneself opposed to a revolution when it comes around simply because that revolution was unexpected, or because it failed to meet all the criteria for what a revolution should be. A second challenge is to avoid romanticizing the revolutionaries, turning them into forces of good locked into a battle against evil.
 
A revolution is that historical moment when the free will of the people defies the reigning hegemon, and the means of control which entrench its order. It is also that moment when "the people" are no longer a hollow metaphor brandied about by intellectuals and by the regime's critics. Instead, "the people" becomes an actuality, one which can be clearly designated, and measured relatively to other actualities. "The people" begins to take shape, and starts to have a taste and color, it is made into flesh. A revolution presents the people with an opportunity to put their best forward, but also for their worst traits to show up. The latter is the case when a revolution is defined entirely by negation, and the removal of a state authority.
 
As I have said, taking a principled, value-based stand on a revolution requires not only an acceptance of the event as a tangible reality to be understood, but rather requires that one supports it as an act of opposition to the inherent evil of injustice. Or, alternatively, to oppose the revolution if one comes to the conclusion that the prevailing order and its preservation are more valuable than freedom. My own opinion is that virtue is on the side of the oppressed, but there is a fine distinction which must be made here.
 
To judge the rebellion of the oppressed against tyranny as an act of good against evil is not to say that the revolutionaries are a group of virtuous individuals battling a group of evil individuals. A revolution is not a battle between the virtuous and the evil, and to classify a revolution in such a way  is to commit a number of errors which may become their own sins. Such portrayal of revolutions places unreasonable expectations on the oppressed. It also makes it impossible to come to terms with a variety of abuses and unpalatable excesses, not to say crimes, which are committed in the name of the revolution. To define the revolution in this way is also to deny oneself the right to criticize the revolution, and that is its own sin. Further, the adoption of such a position prevents a proper understanding of the regime, its structure and the need to change it fundamentally. The risk of conceptualizing a revolution in this way is that it diverts its focus away from the need to change the regime's deeply engrained structures, turning attention to the ouster of the persons within it instead, as if the revolution was meant to be a purge of the evil, something which becomes its own sin. Here again, we are faced with further caveats.
 
A revolution against injustice aims to undo the structures of that injustice, and not merely to dismiss specific individuals. In fact, a revolution does not necessarily demand the removal of all of the individuals within the structures of power. This conclusion goes hand in hand with our evolving definition of how the regime is identified to begin with. There is a difference between carrying out the duties of public office within an unjust regime, and carrying out crimes with the pretense of carrying out public service. There is a difference between those who retrospectively justify the decisions of unjust regimes, and those who take part in the drafting of policies from within the regime. The decision-makers will never be forgiven by the revolution, regardless of what their personal intentions actually were. Their own personal tragedy, which I am not going to discuss today, is that in some cases they had been beholden to regime machinations outside of their control.
 
There remains another risk that, in the ecstasy which follows the rebellion of the masses after a long period of stupor and apathy, that we succumb to romanticism and canonize the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries are not saints, and while they seize the initiative at the exact moment when they are in complete control of their will, they and their value systems remain the products of what was put in place by the standing regime. Corrupt, tyrannical regimes which rule for long periods corrupt the societies over which they rule, and the revolutionaries are products of their own societies. While they become revolutionaries by challenging the regime, it does not follow that their defiance will bring with it a new set of values and morals to replace the old one.
 
It is also impossible to speak of a transitional phase with clarity without first addressing exactly which direction that transition is moving in. There lies a risk, which emerges during the period which lies at the interregnum. That interregnum lies between the point when the old regime begins to crumble before our very eyes, when belief in its impending end begins to spread, but before the features of its replacement become clear. At that point, the risk which emerges is that instead of a transitional period, anarchy will reign; or perhaps that there will be no defined rules governing the transition, making it impossible for anybody to guide its path.
 
I will not add my voice to the chorus which demands that revolutions adhere to clear, detailed agendas before they can be recognized as genuine revolutions. History shows such an attitude to be misguided. All of history's revolutions went through a period of unbridled, collective free will and open defiance before their aims were more clearly set down by a group or an individual. People who fixated on the transitional phase as its own objective might plausibly and retrospectively be accused of appropriating the revolutions.
 
At the outset of the Russian Revolution in February of 1917, there was no definite desire to create a Socialist or a Communist order. It was only when the Bolsheviks took the reins of the revolution and the following transitional phase, during October of that same year, that Socialism became during the revolution and the transitional phase which followed on from it. Something similar could be said of the French Revolution, which did not begin as an effort to create a Democratic Republic: it was only after various Parisian political clubs rose to dominance that these aims were adopted. Even then, coming to the conclusion that the monarchy had to be disbanded was a gradual process. In the case of the Iranian revolution-some of whose present-day fellow travelers are quick to accuse people in Arab Spring countries of "appropriating the revolutions"-its  entire trajectory was one act of appropriation by the clergy, which at the time was the solitary nation-wide structure in Iran.
 
In all of those cases, without exception, a revolution was followed by wide-scale physical elimination of those later dubbed "enemies of the revolution", through public summary executions, often with an air of pageantry to them. While figureheads of the outgoing regime were often the first to be executed, the same treatment was later meted out to some of the revolutionaries, even some of the revolutionary vanguard. In some cases, judges who never took part in the rebellion pronounced revolutionaries to be "enemies of the revolution" before sentencing them to death. Historians have yet to complete their understanding of all of the features of a revolution, while I will limit myself to the examples just cited.
 
In contrast, the Arab revolutions erupted in the midst of a global transition to democracy. They also seem to have falsified an insidious sense of foreboding, one often cloaked in a shroud of sophistry, which pronounces an Arab exceptionalism preventing the democratic transition.
 
Are we then justified in claiming that the Arab revolutions were revolutions for democracy?
 
While not all revolutions against tyranny are movements towards democracy, there are a few points to bear in mind. Firstly, in our day and age democracy is presented worldwide as the only alternative to tyranny. Secondly, let us remember that the Arab revolutions followed on the heels of a long-standing movement, one in which a number of forces demanded democracy for the Arab world. Remarkably, a number of religious movements in Arab countries have joined these demands for democracy and democratic reforms over the past fifteen years (let us leave aside discussion of whether such a change reflected a change in values or was more of a functionalist, pragmatic calculation). A third point to recall is that no individual Arab political force was capable of monopolizing the orchestration of a revolution: the people rebelled without seeking permission from either the state or from political parties. My personal belief is that the people's reactions would not have been so enthusiastic had it been formal political bodies which organized the protests in response to the self-immolation of Moahmmed Bouazizi; or for Egypt's Day of Anger on 25 January; or for the public square protests in Yemen's Taaz and Sanaa; or in front of the Ministry of Interior in Damascus or the public spaces in Deraa. Perhaps there would have been no public response at all, since nobody is willing to risk life and limb for the sake of a political party. Yet it is also true that none of these revolutions would have endured had they not been created by a wide spectrum of political movements and politicized individuals. Being unfettered by ideological uniformity, the Arab revolutions are instead left with a deeply rooted political pluralism.
 
These revolutions are thus rebellions against tyranny, and demands for freedom and the limitation of authority and its regulation. The revolutionaries demand that the security apparatus being prevented from meddling in citizens' daily affairs, and from making economic and political decisions in their countries. They demand the independence for the judiciary and the combating of corruption. Achieving these requires the creation of the structures of democratic governance. The political pluralism engrained within the Arab revolutions, and the inability of a single political faction to dominate them, point in the same direction: the Arab revolutions are democratic revolutions, driving towards the formation of democratic governments. There is evidence that this was the sole demand which formed a point of consensus for any of the revolutions at any given moment. This is also the reason that, just as soon as the regime "fell"-whatever form such a "fall" took, whether the departure of one ruler or the arrest of another, or whatever else-the  immediate response of the political forces at work was to set about drafting constitutions and holding elections. Such scenes are quickly recognizable from other settings in which revolutions, popular protest movements or even reforms were followed by a democratic transition.
 
So where does the obstacle to the Arab transition lie? Is it the problem presented by the rise of the social ills, including criminality and religious and sectorial chauvinism, in the aftermath of the revolutions? These are not the source of the problem: such phenomena come to the fore whenever the lid of tyranny is removed from a society which has suffered for decades. Does the problem lie in the unforeseen, unruly levels of pluralism? In the way in which one political party splinters off into others, multiplying like amebae? Is the problem to do with a press which is free to print whatever suits it best, without bothering to investigate anything, and to recycle rumors and hearsay until the news no longer bears any relation to reality? No, these are not where the obstacle lies. It is only natural, after having been deprived of freedom for so long, that people will accept as a legitimate opinion any instance of the freedom of expression; that they accept rumors and even nonsense as meaningful points of view. It is only natural that they take grandstanding to be a principled adoption of a position, and that they should designate slander to be valid criticism. Any opposition will be accepted as part of the freedom to oppose, no matter the interests driving such opposition. People are today becoming acquainted with their liberties, to the point where some are willing to change sides the moment you start to agree with them, for the sake of being different. In fact, the obstacle lies in the failure of the main political factions to appreciate two points.
 
Firstly, they refuse to accept that the revolutions were not led by political parties; and secondly, they fail to see that an agreement on the democratic transition is needed. Since no single group or faction can be free to chart the revolution's path, and impose its own way forward, there can be no alternative to a consensus binding all of the major forces within a society. Such a consensus would not cover political or economic agendas, questions of foreign policy, nor should it provide for a power sharing agreement in which authority is parceled out by quota. It should be an agreement, rather, on the democratic principles to be the exclusive guidelines for political parties to compete, and promote their agendas. In other words, to collaborate on the organization of liberty, insofar as liberty is a principle approved by all; on a system which best protects human dignity, insofar as human dignity is a concern shared by all; and on a system which prevents corruption and tyranny, so far as such is an aim on which they all agree.
 
Without an agreement on such democratic principles, it would not have been possible for the well-established political parties in Spain-to take one example-to successfully carry out a relatively peaceful transition to democracy from 1978 to 1979, after having lived under for forty years under conditions similar to those we are emerging from. It was only after that agreement that Spain's constitution was ratified in the country's parliament, in 1979. Only after that agreement, covering the principles on which all agree, was a system regulating disagreements and differences, support, opposition and competition put into place. At such a juncture, it is also possible that major political factions will find themselves in the opposition, but they can be assured that the ruling party will abide by the agreed principles. Such principles would not change seasonally and through simple majorities, but rather over long eras, and through absolute majorities.
 
The time it takes to achieve such an agreement is not an issue here, the important thing is that a consensus paving the way for democratic competition is reached. Within the Arab countries, democratic competition preceded agreement on such joint principles, and rapidly transformed into rivalry. All objectivity was lost the moment this happened.  Criticisms of elected governments became the preserve of narrow, partisan interests and reflected desire to see those governments fail. Attempts to evaluate the role of the military were subject to the same flaws, and demands for economic development became rallying calls for specific societal strata. Even judgment of the democratic transition became a prejudiced affair. It was after this transition that the defeat of a competing political power, though a partner in the revolution, overtook the ouster of the previous regime as the main objective. In this state of affairs, the remnants of the old regime were given legitimacy anew, and political alliances with them seemed matter-of-fact and permissible.
 
In the end, and after an initial period spent in awe of the Arab revolutions, such free-for-all competition between the various political parties left the stage open for international actors to meddle in the game of democracy by pitting one side against another. Even some Arab states which stood opposed to the revolutions have been able to do this.
 
Another notable point is that while revolutionary developments in some countries have already moved to electoral matters and the building of a new regime, in others the revolutions have been stalled. These realities feed off of each other since, as I explained earlier, the common Arab realm acts as a vehicle for the transmission of the hopes and disappointments of all, of their dreams and their fears. Just as the success of the Tunisian Revolution had an outsized impact-compared to revolutions and democratic transitions in Indonesia, Iran, Latin America and Eastern Europe-on the wider Arab consciousness, so too will the difficulties faced by Arab revolutions be felt in the countries in which the revolutions are still ongoing.
 
It is at this juncture where the problem can be best defined as one of a lack of clarity, with the political parties not understanding that the transitional phase is their joint responsibility. These political parties also failed to grasp that it was a responsibility which went beyond national boundaries, and that their actions had an impact on all of the Arab peoples; that this should have been thought of as an honor and not a burden.
 
A third point is interrelated with the second difficulty. It is the problem presented by the speed with which the dispute over political principles has evolved into a conflict between identity groups, and a culture clash between the secular and the religious. I continue to believe that this risk was best avoided. It presents a particular likelihood for sectarian divisions, the bane of any pluralist democracy, in the Arab Levant.
 
Should a revolution degenerate into such a culture clash, there will be only a fine line dividing that struggle from various types of civil conflict, or a hybrid conflict bringing together elements of a revolution and of a civil war. One possibility is the outbreak of an all-out civil war, which bears no relation to a revolution in terms of possible eventualities, ethical considerations and values. Making an ethical decision on which side to support would be almost impossible in that situation.  A fuller discussion of this will have to wait for another time.
 
The above comments reflect the situation as it stands, including the prevailing difficulties. While these difficulties may prolong and complicate the transition, they cannot prevent it forever. The evidence for that contention is that the extent of public participation in politics and the public space means that turning back the clock of time impossible. We have the choice of either learning from the examples of others, or waiting to make our own mistakes. The second option is more painful and takes longer. Ultimately, however, these revolutions were a push by the Arab peoples to replace tyranny with a system of government based on the rights and responsibilities of citizens. They wanted to form a system of rule which preserves citizens' liberty and dignity, and not to replace one type of tyranny with another. Whether by revolution or through reform, these changes will prevail throughout the Arab countries.
 
It's no secret that I am personally in favor of the changes underway, but it is also true that support for a revolution is the only way to secure a right to criticize it. As for those who opposed the revolutions, and who today stand opposed to the democratic transition, their objections cannot really be defined as "criticisms". They are battling the tides of change, hanging on to the last shreds of the past and waiting for the right time to turn against the revolution. They fit the definition of a counter-revolution exactly.

Azmi Bishara on Twitter



 


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