The state of heightened psychological tension which has swept across our region is being fostered by calls for “chaos”, and justifications for “instability”, under several slogans, most notably the legitimacy of “toppling a regime” by taking to the streets. In the examples of Tunisia and Egypt, casualties were relatively limited, despite the substantial material damage. Many rushed to express support for both uprisings, citing them as being two peaceful and civil models of change. However, the situation in Libya has transformed into a violent civil war, proving that the price for change can sometimes extend towards utter devastation.
There is a significant ethical question facing Arab intellectuals, and others who rushed to enthusiastically endorse the popular uprisings across the region: Could we justify starting a civil war, or resorting to foreign intervention to change a regime, whenever certain citizens take to the streets? Who has the right to self-determination in this case? Citizens as a whole, or just the revolutionaries?
If you believe that the ruling Arab regimes possess no popular legitimacy, or that they must change because they do not believe in democracy, or put it into practice, then you are basically left with two options: The first option is to publicly call for regime change, and participate in that process. The second option is to reject the principle of enforced change, because it would lead to “anarchy”, and hope for a gradual transfer of power through the governing elite and society at large, with a view to establishing a more favorable ruling system.
Of course it is also possible to argue that the issue is not as simple as saying there is a democratic government here, and a non-democratic one there, and therefore the former is legitimate and the latter is not, for several reasons: Firstly, the framework of legitimacy in the Middle East is varied and diverse. Tribal, provincial and sectarian loyalties are still potent. Secondly, the political situation in the region is extremely complex, and its problems cannot be attributed to the absence of democracy alone. The cultural, religious, social, political and economic infrastructure in the region suffers from fundamental problems which hinder civil rule, and nurture the culture of autocracy. Thirdly, rising discontent against the ruling system, no matter how justifiable the reasons might be, does not necessarily herald the dawn of a democratic system. The Tunisian and Egyptian examples are still in a transitional phase, and their success can only be judged in the future.
If we examine the protests which have swept through our region, the majority raised slogans like “stand down” or “the people want regime change”. However, it is difficult to claim that there was one particular uprising that solely demanded democracy. There were calls – you could call them demands, but they were born on the spur of the moment, and it was apparent that they were getting louder and louder as the situation escalated.
For instance, what happened in Tunisia was a case of civil disobedience which got out of control. You could say the same about Egypt, where protestors occupied Tahrir Square by force, and resisted the riot police. Furthermore, acts of vandalism against public institutions, and a sense of lawlessness, characterized such protests from day one. However, not a single word of criticism was directed at the revolutionaries’ violence and refusal for dialogue. You can blame the former regime’s apparatus, but you cannot deny that a section of the masses resorted to violence and vandalism, and refused to vacate Tahrir Square even after the regime was ousted.
In Libya, for example, there were few peaceful demands or protests, the masses took up arms right away. Whether or not you support Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, you cannot support the rebel gunmen fighting in the streets, without knowing who they are or how they see the future of the country.
The problem with some Arab intellectuals, who have rushed to express their support for the popular uprisings, is that they are supporting the unpredictable street. These intellectuals could have remained impartial, and exercised their intellectual independence in reading the situation, yet some of them have hurried to praise and support the populist forces. In other words, they have succumbed to the will of the street, a group which includes the idealists, the faithful, the thieves and the senseless mob that seeks only to destroy.
If you supported the popular uprising in Egypt, which overthrew the president, the constitution, and undermined the principle of the civil transfer of power, then you cannot object to the sectarian uprising in Bahrain which seeks to topple the regime, or to the occupation of Tahrir Square by a group of young peaceful Copts, who argue that Islam cannot be the main source of legislation in the new constitution. Furthermore, if an ethnic or sectarian group decides to declare independence and cut off all the main roads leading to its region, then you cannot object as long as it is a peaceful protest, even if it isolates other peaceful citizens.
According to this logic, the vocal minority has a right to disrupt the practices of the state and its institutions, and spread chaos to the security and political domain. Meanwhile, no one else can criticize or object to their behavior, by voicing independent opinions, without being classified as pro-regime supporters, even if they are independent and impartial. This is a kind of revolutionary tyranny.
The Arab street, which is said to be going through a state of awakening, or democratic revolution, and fighting against autocracy and dictatorship, is the same street which bitterly protested against the ouster of Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein, at the hands of a foreign power. It is the state street that demonstrated against the arrival of foreign troops to take part in the liberation of Kuwait. Ironically, it is also the same street which calls upon Western countries to exert pressure, when it wants to topple an Arab regime, and asks for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to stop Gaddafi’s troops advancing upon the retreating rebels.
There is a great moral crisis here. Attempting to justify revolutions and anarchy under any slogan or name is one thing, and demanding reform is another. Those intellectuals who indiscriminately champion change are advocating a lawless, unpredictable scenario. They are also quick to praise forces which are yet to reveal themselves. Unfortunately, at this particular point, revolutionary zeal overcomes the independent voice of careful thought and sound judgment. Everyone supports uprisings when they overthrow existing autocratic regimes. As for the state of chaos and ambiguity that ensues, this is the “price of freedom” as they say!
There a big difference between peaceful demonstrations which respect the law, and violent protests that storm the capital, occupy its vital institutions, and seize state records and documents. Some Arab intellectuals envisage that these protests will turn into perfect democracies, yet this is a case of a “romantic Utopia”, which many intellectuals have fallen victim to throughout modern history.
In his book “The Reckless Mind” (2001), Mark Lilla warns against intellectuals that justify their political recklessness, under the slogan of the “organic intellectual”. According to this definition, such intellectuals consider themselves active and responsible figures within social and political spheres. Organic intellectuals consider themselves independent of the regime’s authority. However, in reality, they are subject to the authority of another regime, an invisible one, namely the forces of dissent and opposition, who express approval for intellectual discourse only if it works in their favor. Yet these forces would not hesitate to reproach any organic intellectual if they tried to criticize the cultural flaws and despotic features of their revolutionary discourse.
At this historic moment, some of our intellectuals have abandoned their independent thought, and submitted to the revolutionaries in the Arab streets. Overthrowing regimes by spreading chaos is certainly not a criterion of success. Rather, it is important to build a civil society that does not resort to clamorous disruptions, in order to impose its opinion on the (peaceful) silent majority. In describing the selfish nature of the revolutionary intellectual, Mark Lilla says: “They would recklessly indulge in political debates, write books, make speeches and give advice amidst a wave of activity which barely hides their incompetence and irresponsibility. Men like these consider themselves as independent minds while the truth is that they are a reckless flock led by their inner demons; a flock thirsty for approval from a fickle audience.”