Revolution: The pursuit of public happiness

Can using Hannah Arendt’s prism of viewing the American Revolution help us understand the Arab Spring?

Man sits in front of a mural of people who died during Egypt''s revolution at Tahrir Square in Cairo
Cairo was covered with revolutionary images - but Egyptians may have to rely on their collective memories [Reuters]

New York, NY – 
Mid-June 2012 marks the third anniversary of the Green Movement in Iran, and more than a year and a half into the dramatic unfolding of the Arab revolutions. Over the past three years, the Arab and Muslim world – from Morocco to Iran, from Syria to Yemen – seems to have witnessed more mass public demonstrations than in the entire history of all postcolonial nation-states combined.

Where do Iranians and Arabs – and, by extension, the rest of the Muslim world – stand today after shedding their fear of brutality, risking everything for a better, yet uncertain, future for themselves and their children?

Four dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, but their emancipated people face long and uncertain futures. The Iranian Green Movement was brutally suppressed – its leaders put under house arrest and its supporters and sympathisers reportedly point blank murdered, arrested, jailed, tortured, even raped, or else forced to leave their homeland, suffering the indignities of exile. Syrians and Bahrainis are putting stiff resistance to their entrenched tyrannies that rule over them, enduring massacres, mass arrests and torture – while from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, many other Arab potentates await the turn of the historic screw coming their way – one way or another.

 Revolution through Arab Eyes:
Manufacturing the truth

But does too much myopic attention to one country or another, one event or another – the presidential election or the dismantling of the parliament in Egypt, the barbarity of the ruling regime in Syria, or the counter-revolutionary forces centred in Saudi Arabia trying to fish from the muddy waters and thus to delay their own demises – perhaps dull the wit and prevents us from seeing the larger picture and where we are headed?  

Revolution to reclaim the public space

In 1963, the distinguished political philosopher Hannah Arendt published a vastly influential book, On Revolution, in which she compared the two world historic American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions by way of putting forward her own contentious theory – a theory in which she took both the liberal and the Marxist conceptions of revolution to task. Her primary concern was that the French Revolution had been much and widely theorised, so much so that it has in fact coloured our very conception of “revolution”, while the American Revolution has been entirely under-theorised. In this book she set upon herself the herculean task of compensating for that fact and sought critically to theorise the American revolution for her own time. Do Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on revolutions have something to teach to us today about the Arab and Muslim revolutions? 

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt favours the American over the French Revolution because she thought in the latter, enduring and endemic economic issues (or what she called “the social question”) diluted and confused the more primary concern of revolutions, which in her estimation was the constitution of the republic on solid and enduring public domain and legal institutions. 

The French revolutionaries, Arendt thought, were distracted from their primary responsibilities in establishing a free and democratic republic by the support of the masses, thus forcing them to address the ever expansive – and in her judgment insurmountable – economic issues, which turned the revolution towards chaos. Her preference for the American revolution was precisely rooted in this revolutionary determination to constitute and stabilise the public domain of democracy – though she was equally critical of Americans for having limited their participation in their democratic institutions to periodic voting and abandoned the main objectives of participatory democracy.

 Revolution through Arab Eyes: Tahrir Diaries

Thus using the French and the American revolutions as her model, she believes that initially these revolutions had a restorative force to them, but that in the course of events something of an epistemic shift occurs in the revolutionary uprising. It was in the aftermath of the French Revolution in particular, she thought, that the very idea of “revolution” assumed its radical (Marxist) disposition, aiming at eradicating economic and social injustices in society. It is at this point that in the eyes of “the leading strata in Europe … America ceased to be the land of the free and became almost exclusively the promised land of the poor”. This was a flawed reading of the United States, she thought. The purpose of the revolution was not, and is not, to eradicate poverty, but to liberate from tyranny and enable the freedom of political participation. 

Arendt’s reading of revolutions is thus predicated on her conception of politics not as a codification of legitimate violence, as Max Weber, for example, would say, but as a haven and protection from violence, in a theoretic move more akin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Thomas Hobbes, for whom the fate of humanity was otherwise “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

The aspect of the American revolution that Arendt best admired was the fact that power was not directed towards the institutionalisation of legitimate violence, as Weber understood it, but as a social contract, a covenant, that the public bestows on the state and can thus withdraw it at will. 

Arendt was critical of giving economic factors political resolutions. Poverty was definitive to the human condition, and only in modern time was it assumed that it could be politically addressed. That factor confused the political project of revolutions, which was no longer to liberate people from oppression but to address the problem of poverty. To Arendt, that political twist of the revolutionary project was dangerous and futile. The peculiar aspect of the American revolution was precisely its having remained aloof to the social (economic) question, and sought to liberate from tyranny and safeguard freedom. 

The very nature and function of revolutions for Arendt is to translate the momentary revolutionary zeal into a pluralistic, publicly-based system of political participation and governance.

In achieving that end, she makes a critical distinction between liberation and freedom. Liberation is an emancipatory act, and is liberation from tyranny, while freedom is the unfettered ability to participate in public life, in the public domain, via freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly. Liberty she thus defined as liberation from unjustified restraint, freedom as the ability to participate in public affairs, a forceful expansion of the public space for political participation. 

Central to Arendt’s political thought is the active formation of this public domain, upon which citizens realise their political life.

Hannah Arendt takes the proverbial expression of “the pursuit of happiness” in the United States Declaration of Independence – where pursuing “happiness” is considered an “inalienable right” – and offers a public reading of it, a reading that expands that happiness to include the freedom to participate in the public life. The revolutionary spirit must translate into the institutionalised forms of that public happiness. Public happiness is definitive to Arendt’s very conception of politics. 

Extending Thomas Jefferson’s ideals, Hannah Arendt argues:

“If the ultimate end of revolution was freedom and the constitution of a public space where freedom could appear, then… no one could be called happy without his share of public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.”

Tahrir Square

 Artists use graffiti to tell Egypt revolution’s stories

In a powerful piece for Al Jazeera, Murtaza Hussain briefly describes the significance of Tahrir Square in the course of the Egyptian Revolution:

“In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, ground zero of the democratic uprising which overthrew the brutal 42-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the history of the 2011 revolution is literally drawn on the walls. Down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, along the sides of the American University of Cairo (AUC) compound and all around the Square there are stunning and oft-emotional testaments to the historic events which led to the fall of the Mubarak regime and which galvanised the attention of the world.”

Then with much concern Murtaza Hussain rightly warns the world:

“On an early Monday morning a work crew commissioned by the Egyptian government began covering the revolutionary murals in Tahrir with white paint, in what seemed to many to be a calculated and deliberate effort to erase the living history of the 2011 revolution.”

But he concludes with an assurance – to himself and to us:

“No attempt at whitewashing by the government seems able to wipe away the collective memory of the Egyptian people, a memory which continues to manifest itself time and again in artistry on the streets where the battles of the revolution were fought and won.”

Is “the collective memory of the Egyptian people”, perfectly reliable as it is, the only way to guarantee that the heroic sacrifices on the historic square are not forgotten? If we are not to fetishise the actual space of Tahrir Square in Cairo and read it more metaphorically as the public space in which the Egyptian revolution (perhaps the most significant event of the Arab Spring so far) happened, how are we to insure that no “calculated and deliberate effort to erase the living history of the 2011 revolution” can actually take place?

 Revolution through Arab Eyes – The Republic of Tahrir

There are Egyptians who think, and with perfect reason, that the decision of their Supreme Court in mid-June 2012 to dismantle the newly elected parliament and allow the former Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq to run for office amounted to “a judicial coup” against their revolution. But will the Supreme Court also take away the memory of the Tahrir Square and be able to ban Egyptians from gathering in their gathering place forever? 

How exactly is the memory of the Tahrir Square not to be erased, in what particular manners can we think that the public sphere that was magically crafted with heroism and sacrifice – and upon which Hannah Arendt might say we need to cultivate our “public happiness” – will not be washed away by any white painting? 

Suppose the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court succeeds in dissolving the parliament, or suppose Mohamed Morsi or Ahmed Shafiq do become the next Egyptian president – has the Egyptian revolution failed?

What will happen, not just to the memory or the art produced or whitewashed in Tahrir Square, but to the square itself? Not just its physical or metaphorical meanings for Egyptians, but the manner in which it has crafted a new meaning of the public space for the Arab and Muslim world.

For Hannah Arendt, wards, districts and boroughs were “the elementary republics” that defined the public domain and safeguarded freedom. But in Egypt, what would be the functional equivalent of those wards be today? Community organisations and voluntary associations or Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, or somewhere in between, or a combination of both?  

Those are the critical questions that not just Egyptians but all Arabs, all Iranians, and all Muslims face on any day and on every anniversary of their uprisings. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his most recent books are Iran, the Green Movement and the US: The Fox and the Paradox (Zed Books, 2010), and The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (Zed Books, 2012).