Living Havel’s truth in the Arab world

Havel’s journey from political dissident to president should be an example for the young protesters of the Arab Spring.

Havel was a ‘harbinger of the young revolutionaries who pushed Arab countries towards the brink of freedom’ [EPA]

During the last year of revolutionary protests across the Arab world, one of the things that most surprised me was how little Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution he helped to lead, was mentioned by activists or even commentators as a model for understanding, or engaging in, the present revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. In so many ways, Havel was a harbinger of the young revolutionaries who have pushed Arab countries towards the brink of freedom.

He was liberal and cosmopolitan, an artist and a writer. No doubt, he would have been one of the most interesting bloggers of his generation if the medium existed during his dissident days (although it’s hard to know whether the absurdist aesthetic that informed his philosophical and artistic production would have translated well to Twitter). He was also a lover of great rock music; indeed, the rock ‘n roll soundtrack that helped propel the Prague Spring in 1968 is not that different in attitude and substance from the soundtrack of the revolutionaries of Tehran, Tunis or Tahrir.

Indeed, the Iranian Government, for one, recognised the potential for the Velvet Revolution model to be applied to the Middle East, which is why it derisively referred to protesters of the Green Movement as “velvet revolutionaries”. It well understood what a threat a culturally grounded rebellion against the political status quo can be, which is why it used anything but velvet gloves in repressing the movement in 2009.

The plasticity of revolt

The original Velvet Revolution didn’t just show the world what a society-wide non-violent revolt against a repressive government could achieve. Or rather, it did if you start the revolution in 1968 and see how it was crushed by a much more resilient system, requiring another two decades to pass before the freedom young people cried out for in 1968 to be realised. But it is crucial that at the forefront of the movement were: musicians, artists, playwrights and other cultural creatives. The “Prague Spring” of 1968 gave birth to a music and culture scene in Czechoslovakia which became the engine of the country’s democracy struggles during the next two decades. The most famous presence in the scene was the Plastic People of the Universe.

Named after a Frank Zappa song, the Plastic People started out playing covers of proto-punk bands like the Fugs and, of course, Velvet Underground (the term Velvet Revolution was coined at least partly because of the influence of the band on the music and larger cultural scene). Fairly quickly, however, the musical talent and political acumen of the core members of the group helped the PPU become one of the most innovative bands – musically as well as politically – in Czechoslovakia, and ultimately in the history of rock ‘n roll. Helping the band earn this distinction was the glee with which it blended Western and local styles of rock and other forms of music, and its ability to reach an international as well as Czechoslovakian audience.

Indeed, the underground cultural scene of the 1960s helped nurture the truly “counter” cultural scene that exploded out of the underground just as the era of contemporary globalisation commenced in the late 1980s, sparking the wider political rebellion that forced the Communists from power. This is precisely the path that this generation of Arab musicians, artists and writers has taken over the last decade, blending together elements of various cultures to create hybrid sounds that lay the groundwork for the creative activist politics at the grass roots level that so inspired ordinary citizens and the world in the last year.

Different systems, same logic

However important a playwright, it was Havel’s political philosophy – one every bit as much a philosophy of praxis as was that of the great Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci – that is the most relevant to the situation today in the Arab world. Havel’s writings about life under communist rule in the 1970s and 1980s reflect a system that was remarkably similar to the authoritarian state system – the “ramparts of dehumanised power” as he put it – against which Egyptians especially are still revolting.

Here is Havel talking about the way the Communist system persisted in his country in the essay “Politics and Conscience:”

“It is… becoming evident – and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance – that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters.

It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the ‘innocent’ power and to unmask its guilt… It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power… It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakeable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats.”

Havel saw the potential for individual action to offer radical challenges to seemingly all-powerful regimes, a view that has been borne out by the individual stories of heroes and heroines such as Mohammed Bouazizi, Asma Mahfouz and the thousands of faceless martyrs in Misrata, Homs and Cairo. They created the kind of “solidarity of the shaken” that Havel believed would (re)unite people long divided by politics and power.

And they did so precisely by “living the truth” against systems whose “main pillars” were:

“… Living a lie… By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing part what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie… He has said the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened… He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.”

If there is a better description of the war between protesters and the SCAF in Egypt right now I have not read it. But Havel also realised that enabling everyone to peer behind the curtain does not guarantee that they are ready or willing to do so. Living within the truth is extremely hard, and as he was at pains to point out, the rewards for the individuals who are the avant-garde of such truthful living are usually prison, torture and/or death.

And because of this, Havel also understood how crucial the role of the passive participation in existing systems was to its power. In his seminal essay “The Power of the Powerless”, he explained that the “real nature of power” in authoritarian systems lies in the fact that people obey and follow the prescriptions and rules of the system even after they know they are lies – as epitomised by the grocer in the essay who hangs a meaningless socialist slogan in his window merely because that is what he is expected to do, and he is unwilling to take the risk of going against the system.

For their part, the rulers of the system rarely operate with the “ideological gloves” off, even when they know that the people know the ideology is false. Everyone, including the emperor, may know he has no clothes, but as long as everyone acts as if he does, the system can continue to function.

Which generation is this?

This is precisely why it’s so important for regimes like SCAF or Assad’s in Syria to keep up pretences, to talk of protecting the revolution, of honouring the people even though every action speaks the opposite. They may be mafia states, but they can’t act on a pure logic of power, for that leads people to feel so powerless they no longer have anything to lose – they stop living the lie. Tunisians did this after December 17 and haven’t looked back since. Egyptians, millions of them at least, did so a few weeks later, as have Bahrainis, Libyans, Yemenis and Syrians.

But in Egypt, millions if not tens of millions, of citizens – especially those who live outside of the main cities and who don’t have regular access to alternative media – have yet to move from the lie to the truth. Similarly in Syria or Bahrain, significant percentages of the citizenry – not merely those who have directly benefitted from the current system, but even those who could count themselves among its losers, at least relatively – continue to follow the ritual of living a lie precisely because they aren’t convinced the truth won’t make things even worse (that’s surely what SCAF is working overtime to convince them of). And so, willingly or not, they follow at least certain elements of the “ritual” that allows the game to continue.

What this indicates is that while Tunisia has had its 1989 moment, Egypt and perhaps Bahrain as well, could well still be stuck in 1968, when a powerful and creative revolutionary moment ran into the brick wall of a national political system that was still fundamentally intact, and a superpower sponsor who was fundamentally invested in protecting the existing order. The US can’t send in tanks to support the SCAF or the Bahraini monarch, but it certainly won’t cut off funding, military relations or offer too harsh criticism of the government.

The US today is not the Soviet Union in 1989, on the verge of political and economic collapse and the “polite and patient non-violent resistance” that commentators like Timothy Garton Ash have celebrated as one of Havel’s greatest strengths will not serve as an easy or even correct model for young Arab protesters fighting against even more murderous regimes to follow. The “system” – a term Havel shares with the Arab protesters is much more resilient than was the Soviet Communist model imposed on Czechoslovakia.

From dissident to president

Indeed, Havel’s writings, and the larger cultural-political scene he helped pioneer, hold many lessons for today’s revolutionaries. One of the most important is that while it might take a generation, once the lie is out, it’s only a matter of time before the system collapses. But Havel’s positions and policies as president also hold important lessons for revolutionaries who, sooner or later, will confront a successful transition from authoritarianism to democratic rule of some sort.

The first is that it is much harder to create a new system that delivers on the desires of the revolution than it is to destroy the old one. It would stretch credulity to argue that life for the average Czech or Slovak in the Communist era was better than it is today. Both successor countries to Czechoslovakia have enjoyed too significant a leap in human, political and economic development to make such an argument. But without a sophisticated alternative economic philosophy or set of policies to guide the new countries’ development, both the Czech and Slovak republics embraced free market orthodoxy and in so doing saw increasingly corrupt and unequal political economies emerge in the ensuing decades after independence (the Czech Republic is today considered one of Europe’s most corrupt).

As important, having broken free of a half century of Communist and Russian domination, Havel and his fellow Eastern European dissident-turned-politicians like Lech Walesa wholeheartedly embraced the United States and NATO. Having spent most of their lives inside the Kafkaesque Communist system, the obedience it demanded and the violence it so routinely deployed, there was no question that in the seemingly warm embrace of the “West” lay the only path to the future.

In defending his decision to support such an obviously immoral and illegal invasion, Havel wondered:

“It’s not by chance that the idea of confronting evil may have found more support in those countries that have had a recent experience with totalitarian systems compared with other European countries that haven’t had the same sort of recent experience. The Czech experience with Munich, with appeasement, with yielding to evil, with demanding more and more evidence that Hitler was truly evil – that may be one reason that we look at things differently than some others… It’s a matter of the functioning of the world’s immune system, whether the world can deal with such a case of extreme evil before it is too late.”

For Havel, Saddam Hussein was an extreme evil; and of course, he was right in that assessment. Hussein was extremely evil, and should have been dealt with “a long time ago”, as he argued.

Havel could situate Hussein within a range of experience that included Munich in 1939 and Soviet tanks in 1968. And yet he couldn’t situate Western military intervention within a centuries-long history of European and American imperial adventures in the Middle East, because it wasn’t his history. He couldn’t situation Hussein’s evil within the larger machinations of American strategic interests, which could put Hussein’s party in power in 1963 and then a decade and a half later build him up Hussein as a proxy against Iran, only to tear him down, twice.

He couldn’t situate Hussein’s evil with the US’ evil in Vietnam – which killed millions – or his beloved West’s support for brutal and even murderous regimes around the world, regimes whose right-wing totalitarianism was even more brutal than the totalitarianism of Eastern Europe.

Luckily, most Arab revolutionaries harbour no illusions about American power, intentions or prestige today. And with the exception of Libyans, none owes the US or broader West anything. But that also means they can expect little of the long term help or commitment to undermining their governments and the larger system they served that proved so important to sustaining underground movements in Eastern Europe during the last generation of Communist rule.

The saving grace is that today’s Arab Havels have an increasingly global movement of civil society behind them. They have comrades from New York to Johannesburg, Barcelona to Buenos Aires, all fighting the same system and seeing themselves as joined together in a lager global struggle to achieve the freedom, justice and dignity celebrated by the Arab revolutionary protests of the last year. They have, in short, a macrocosm of the uncontrollable civil society that Havel and his generation first understood to be crucial to any successful challenge of authoritarian rule within their countries.

While it looks increasingly dark in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries today, if the protesters in the streets can solidify their co-ordination with civil society and, as was so crucial in Poland, involve religious leaders in fighting truly to take down the system rather than merely get a large piece of it for themselves, there is little doubt that in a very short period of time the world’s newest generation of revolutionaries will manage to secure the freedom for which they are fighting tooth and nail.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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