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Revolution without guarantee

We welcome the Arab revolution and will continue to watch with our eyes open to the potential dangers. By Andre Glucksmann

A revolution has taken world by surprise: those at the top, in the grip of panic; those on the streets, who from one minute to the next have no idea how to overcome their fear; those on the outside - experts, governments, TV audiences, myself - blamed for not having foreseen the unforeseeable. Where does this bickering on the French belfries hail from: the Right has failed, the Left proclaims banging its drum, prudently forgetting to explain why Ben Ali (and his RCD party) was kept on as a member of the Socialist International, just like Mubarak and his monocratic party. The former was expelled on 18 January, three days after his escape; the latter on 31 January in great haste. Yet no one seems remotely bothered by this. Not the negligent press. Not the Right that is allied with Putin's all-powerful "United Russia" which is now trying to curry favour with the Chinese Communist Party. Instead of questioning the widespread predilection for autocracy, people prefer to attack the "silence of the intellectuals".

To reflect is not to rush off and try to catch up and overtake an event which will only take your breath away. Aside from admiring the masses for overcoming their fear, it is interesting to focus on the surprise which caught prefabricated opinions off guard. Preconception no. 1: the ancient confrontation between the two blocks will be succeeded by a clash of "civilizations". Alternative preconception, no. 2 : the cold war will be succeeded by a peace of economic rationality and an end to bloody history. Both have been proven wrong by the implosions of the "Arab exception" that have violently destroyed all the pseudo coherence of the ethnic and religious blocks that make up the "Arab world" and "Islamic culture". How many times has it been rammed down our throats that freedom and democracy count for nothing on "Arab streets", as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages?  A refusal to avoid -  or leave to Jerusalem -  the question of oppression was regarded in salons and universities as the utmost Eurocentric, human rights, or Zionist affront.

Since January 2011 inevitability has ceased to exist in Maghreb and the Middle East. Whatever happens next, we welcome the upheaval with "a taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm." These were Kant's words about the French Revolution even if he did disapprove of some of the watershed events.

The globalization which has submerged the earth for the past thirty years, is not limited to finance and the economy. It also carries across the borders the virus of freedom which occasionally gains the upper hand (as in the velvet revolutions) and sometimes comes up against the brutality of the profane politico-military apparatus as in 1989 on Tienanmen Square, or its celestial equivalent in Iran 2009.

And yet, the globalized youth is not ceasing to proclaim with its bodies (sacrificing them if need be), and its (often digital) voices: "Get out!" The Tunisian passion very quickly shook the Egyptian fortress. A sort of spiritual atom bomb exploded the chains of ancestral servitude which proved to be anything but natural-born and which could therefore be shaken off.

Mourning the fall of a tyrant does not come into question. I wanted to see the back of the Communist satraps in Eastern Europe, and of Salazar and Franco and Saddam Hussein, so why should I be worried about the departure of Ben Ali or Mubarak? What will they take with them when their subjects expel them with no sign of regret? Nowhere was it written that Khomeni would follow the Shah. Should I reproach the king of kings for not having spilled more blood in the last battle, or for having spilled too much in the preceding years?

A popular uprising, which sees off a despotic regime is called a revolution. Every great Western democracy knows its own violent origins and the France of St. Just in particular: "The circumstances are only adverse for those who fear the grave." The murder of Khaled Said, the young blogger who was beaten to death by the police in Alexandria, did not intimidate the people, it galvanized them. Facebook and Twitter are the modern day Samizdat.  The small group of internet citizens carry the torches of dissidence.

Lit by the few who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives, like Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, the sparks which set fire to tyranny, are coursing through our space time. The Athens of the 5th Century BC, the city of philosophers, also honored its legendary tyrant killers Harmodius and Aristogeiton.

A power of opposites, freedom offers "the deepest abyss and highest heaven" (Schelling). Europe's path shows us that a revolution can go in any direction, towards a republic, but also towards terror, conquests and wars. In the same moment that the power is shaking in Cairo, Tehran is celebrating the 32nd anniversary of its revolution with a festival of hangings and savage torture. Egypt - please God - is neither Khomeni's Iran,  nor Lenin's Russia nor the Germany of the Nazi revolution. Egypt will become what its youth in their eagerness to breathe and communicate freely, what its Muslim brothers, its suspicious and secretive army, and its rich and poor who live light years apart, want to make of it.

Forty percent of Egyptians suffer from malnutrition, 30 percent are illiterate. This makes democracy difficult and fragile but in no way impossible. If it were, Parisians would never have occupied the Bastille. According to a PEW poll from June 2010, 82 percent of Egyptian Muslims want the introduction of Sharia law and stoning for adulteresses; 77 percent find it normal for thieves to have their hands hacked off and 84 percent are in favour of the death penalty for anyone who changes religion. This puts a lid on any overly rosy predictions for the future.

From the revolution and its repetitions to democracy and a secular republic, France needed two hundred years. In Russia and in China the interval will not be less, if indeed the journey ever reaches an end at all. Even the United States, which believed that the kingdom of heaven could be reached within ten years, was mistaken. First came a horrific civil war, a class war and a battle for civil rights - a long two hundred years of rage.

Saying revolution and freedom is not the same as saying democracy, respect for minorities, equal rights and good relations with neighbouring nations. All this has yet to be achieved. We welcome the Arab revolution and will continue to watch with our eyes open to the potential dangers. But we should not pretend it is something it is not: all the risks, even the worst dangers, still lie ahead. We only need to look back at our own history: the future has no guarantee.


This article was originally published in Liberation on 4 February, 2011.

Andre Glucksmann (born 19 June 1937) is a prominent French philosopher and writer, and leading member of the French new philosophers.


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