In politics, industry, trade, sports and even fashion, a "revolution" is loosely defined as sudden or dramatic change. In the popular consciousness, there are two common ways of looking at the notion of political revolution. First, a revolution could be seen as representative of the popular will, a noble action against the forces of tyranny and oppression, taken to fulfill people's long-suppressed dreams and aspirations. In this sense, revolution is a sacred word, embodying the dignified meanings of freedom, emancipation and progress.
The second school sees revolution as synonymous to violence and terror, to prolonged periods of civil wars characterized by guillotines, lootings and horror. To this school, the word "revolution" evokes the bloody images of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, which was marred by the suspension of civil liberties, and hasty revolutionary tribunals followed by thousands of public executions.
In the Arab world, the second conception has been fostered by ruling elites (including top officials, members of the ruling party, and the business class, whose interests are inherently linked to, and dependent on, the ruling regime) to protect their thrones and interests. Those who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo abolished the word "revolution" from the lexicon of political action; instead, they adopted and promoted the motto "evolution, not revolution," (that is gradual, peaceful and planned change).
Not only did Mubarak follow this playbook carefully, he might have even been its chief author. "Reform in doses" was Mubarak's preferred method to implementing the list of demands put forth by the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions to effectuate economic reform. To "avoid chaos and instability," political reform was also pursued in doses; such small doses in fact that after thirty years in power, real reform is still kept at arm's length. With "stability" becoming the official slogan of Mubarak's politics, "change," let alone dramatic change, has became a loathed word in official discourse.
To dodge popular revolts, the act of revolution had to be tarnished and disgraced first. In the battle for minds, the ruling Arab establishments highlighted and promoted the writings of those ancient Muslim philosophers, thinkers and theologians who had emphasized the Caliph’s right to claim obedience and the prohibition of rebellion. The fourteenth century philosopher Ibn Khaldun, for instance, claimed that it “is in the nature of states that authority becomes concentrated in one person.” In Islamic jurisprudence, obedience to the ruler was reflected in the famous maxim: “sixty years of tyranny are better than one hour of civil strife.” Al-Ghazali, the eminent eleventh century theologian, instructed that an “unjust ruler should not be deposed if strife would follow.” Al-Ash’ari also forbade Muslims to revolt against the ruler, even if that ruler failed to perform his essential duties.
Needless to say, the voices of other Muslim scholars that explained the compatibility between Islamic law and democratic principles, called for confronting and ousting unjust rulers, and instructed on the compulsory application of Shura (Consultation) in Muslim societies, were ignored.
The period of struggle against colonialism in the Arab world was replete with popular revolutions, against foreign occupation, colonial settlers, and local puppet rulers. There has been a scarcity of revolutions after independence, however. The post-independence Arab states developed formidable authoritarian states, with vast security apparatuses, that are equipped with two things: state-of-the-art machinery and unlimited brutality.
Thus, political revolutions, even if not directed candidly against the regime, were prohibited politically and culturally, and, if they ever erupted, were ruthlessly punished by security agencies. According to Arab regimes, the good citizen is the docile and obedient citizen.
This negative perception of revolutions was thoroughly vindicated by the positive spirit of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Spontaneous, unplanned by political parties, professional syndicates, or workers' guilds, and free from direct outside interference, they were indeed revolutions by the people for the people.
Ben Ali and Mubarak's classical approach of infantilizing people and making them believe that the "wisdom" of the president is their best safeguard against bad times has long lost any impact it might have ever had.
In Egypt, demonstrators emphasized that they do not want just a snail-paced, "go-nowhere" reform process carried out by the figureheads of the existing regime; they want to change the whole regime. They expect nothing less than a complete overhaul of the existing corrupt political and legal structures that facilitated authoritarianism and precluded meaningful change, and they want that done now.
In other words, Egyptians yearn for dramatic change in a short period of time. They want a revolution.
Vladimir Lenin explained that "a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution." Egypt has been undergoing an unprecedented revolutionary situation for the past two weeks. But will it lead to a fully-fledged revolution? That is the question.
Nael M. Shama
* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on February 10, 2011.