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Arato on The Return of Revolutions

We certainly said good-bye to revolutions too soon, between 1989 and 1995. Yes, we were right Romania was the exception, and the series of changes of regime certainly did not represent revolutions. Yet the fact that the latter were represented finally and definitively by the journalistic cliche as the „Revolutions of 1989” demonstrates the tremendous power of the topos. Central Eupean ideologists of the radical right could still rely on it in the canard of the betrayed revolution, and the demand of a new revolution reversing the agreements of 1989-1990.

It is indisputably true that both the revolutionary imaginary, and the empirical possibility of revolutions belong to the concept of modernity. This does not mean that the critique of revolutions we inherit from Burke, Hegel, most brilliantly Tocqueville, and, despite all her sympathy, Hannah Arendt lost their meaning and importance. Not at all, and the proof is supplied by highly attractive revolutionary movement in Egypt. It is not too great a paradox in principle at least, that a regime change as the constitutionally incomplete Hungarian one of 1989-90 has been able to achieve a more radical form of transformation than will this last, imposing popular revolt unless the latter, a very big if, is able to force the new millitary dictatorship it helped to produce to concede the negotiated form characteristic of types of regime change within legal continuity.

In what follows I use the term revolution, from the legal point of view, as a type of generally internal change that transforms a system according to other rules or practices than a system’s own rules of change. This was Hans Kelsen’s definition, who could not however distinguish coups and revolutions as a result. Thus either following an early essay of mine I would add that succesful revolutions, unlike coups, change a system’s organizational core or its principle of organization, or better still, following Janos Kis, introduce a new principle of legitimacy. Either way, it should be noticed, a coup or Putsch or golpe is contained within a revolution even if the two terms are not identical. An illegal act of changing rules is necessary if not sufficient for a revolution, whether carried out by a group or institution outside the old governing order (Lenin’s party or Khomeini’s sect) or one within it, sometimes called autogolpe or self-coup (a president, the Estates General, the military command). Moreover as the legally sophisticated minds among revolutionaries like Marx, Lenin, and Carl Schmitt always knew, these coups always establish dictatorship at least in the interim. When the goal is truly revolutionary Schmitt called them sovereign dictatorships, but he was only describing Robespierre’s and Lenin’s practice. Finally, both coup and dictatorship require organizational power; power must step in the place of the power that is overthrown, and this can be in the name of the masses that have forced the collapse of an old regime and achieved part of the work of liberation, but never by them. The exception Hannah Arendt recognizes in this context, the American revolution, is notably one with inherited republican-constitutional institutions that can step into the breach when the colonial sovereign is eliminated. The same thing happened more or less in India. Under dictatorships and autocracies there is no such option.

Thus Hillary Clinton was only partially wrong when in Munich (amazingly enough!), a few days before the fall of Mubarak she warned about the destructive logic of revolutions. The reform she was pushing was however itself destructive in the given context, and reform and revolution as we should all know since 1989 are not exlusive options. It was admittedly a little strange that Clinton neglected the paradigm of 1989 in the company of chancellor Merkel, a GDR activist at that time. Since the American Secretary of State’s opinion counts for a lot, we should see the partially self fulfilling nature of the her polarizing use of the two concepts. With that said, the correct part of her warning should not be disregarded because

1. The highly admirable, disciplined, non-violent movement could force the fall of the Mubarak government, but
2. It could not control either the terms of its replacement, or the linking of liberation to a genuine change of regimes.
3. The latter would have to entail the replacement of what is ultimately a military dictatorship, originally established in the revolution of the Free Officers of 1952.
4. But given the fact that the last step in the Mubarak’s removal was carried out by a silent military coup,
5. And that not wishing to rely on inherited institutions at all the protagonists established a pure if supposedly interim open military dictatorship, the likelihood of such a genuine regime change establishing constituional democracy is now rather remote.

Hannah Arendt analyzed revolutions in terms of two elements, liberation or the removal of old authorities, and constitution, or the construction of a new, free regime. In line with what we are seeing in Egypt she thought liberation succeeds often, but constitution very seldom. There is however a constituent process in Egypt and it is instructive to see why as it it is currently organized it falls under Arendt’s strictures. The current junta has suspended the existing constitution and has dissolved parliament. It has established a new constituent process based on its own decision alone. This consisted of a small unrepresentative panel of experts drawing up some few, indeed very much needed amendments to Mubarak’s constitution, reversing in fact his most recent and most undemocratic amendments to the Constitution of 1971. This was done in 10days, with very minimal results that Mubarak himself was ready to concede before he fell, with popular ratification to follow in a referendum in two months. Again, the method of amendment is entirely illegal under the constitution that is to be amended. Its democratic legitmacy will be equally doubtful, given a constrained referendum where the voters would have only the „choice” to approve these amendments or to retain Mubarak’s version that is moreover suspended. Thus they will have no choice at all in reality.

If approved, the amendments would provide for elections 6 months from now (or 4 months from ratification) it was said. Too soon for new democratic forces to organize. This should favor a candidate close to the military, and/or the Muslim Brotherhood, if they support one as well. Lenin rightly warned against electing constituent assemblies under these conditions in 1905, and the Hungarian Democratic Opposition of 1989 followed his advice, and rejected quick elections for a national constituent assembly promoted byothers, including reformists in the ruling party. Yet surprises in a setting like this, as Lenin himself found out in 1918, in the only free Russian elections till Yeltsin, are also very possible, fortunately. When he lost, needless to say he did not abide by the results, and dissolved the constituent assembly with bayonets. It should not come to that in Egypt. Aside from the constitution, free and fair elections in Egypt would require replacement of a wealth of laws dealing with the press, media, public meetings, personal freedom, and while no plans for such legislation have even been suggested, even the 30 year state of emergency has not been lifted. It is under that system that people are still detained, held, interrogated and tortured. Hardly a conducive framework for free and fair elections, even if there are international monitors present. It looks like new the parliament chosen or the new president will have the option, but only the option!, to call for a parliamentary election of a 100 person constituent assembly the draft a new constituion, also to be approved by a referendum. But some issues like the survival of a hyperpresidential government will be already built in by the fact that a new, plebescitary presidency will be elected shortly after the election of parliament, and probably before that of a constituent assembly if that happens. The drafting commission has not touched the current formidable powers of the presidency.The context resembles the Bonapartist setting both Tocqueville and Marx once so strongly condemned, except that here the president will be a protagonist in the second stage of constitution making, that even Louis Napoleon was not. Despite the fact that many opposition groups openly prefer a move to a parliamentary system, the handchosen commission of the junta did not dare to leave this question open. By making changing mainly in the structure of the presidency, the constitutional bases of hyper-presidentialism is barely touched. As we know from Latin American countries, even the two term limit introduced now can be removed later, as soon as a new president has a popular mandate.

If the scenario the military junta has in mind is carried through there will be no regime change, or only very incomplete steps in that direction. Egypt will look perhaps like some kind of democracy, but that was the case before, especially before the very last years of Mubarak, in appearance at least. More importantly, the military regime, deeply anchored in the state, society, and the economy as well will preserve all or most of its power. At worst, it will control the poltical outcomes. At best it wont, but the governments that emerge will be weak and unstable, opening the door to future interventions. This will still be the old regime, especially on the level that people will experience it.

So what could have been done, and could still be done? The answer to both of these questions is the same. Under a dictatorship in a modern form revolutions rarely can bring serious regime in a democratic direction. Either they will usher in, as mere coups, only governmental change, or old or new elites enabled by transitional dictatorships will be able to renew authoritarian rule in new forms, under new legitimating ideologies. Since 1989, an immense amount of literature has shown that it is negotiated transitions based on compromise among many actors that have the best chance of establishing the guarantees require by constitutional government, that represents the actual threshold of regime change beyond dictatorships. It is very important that in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the DDR and South Africa oppositions demanded not the fall of a government, but comprehensive negotiations concerning regime change: its timing, rules, procedures, and guarantees (the fall of governments in each case, of Gierek, Kadar, Zhivkov, Honnecker and P.W. Botha was only a first step in each, an inner ruling party affair). In Egypt, while there were important opposition gropups they did not demand to jointly negotiate with the government. Even worse, a couple of them negotiated one by one even with Mubarak’s men (the WAFD and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the latter’s adult branch). The initially clever strategy of celebrating the military also backfired: it partially relegitimated the regime. When Mubarak’s last speech surprised the crowds, leaders like elBaradei openly called for a military coup without claiming any role for the opposition in the transiitonal arrangements.

Yet it is not impossible or too late even now to graft a negotiating process unto the revolutionary coup. This happened even in Iraq, where the attempt of the American occupiers to impose a constitution failed under the challenge of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and where the method of constitution making adopted wound up resembling the two stage Central European/South African model if in a version deformed by all sorts of exclusions and irregularities. Accordingly, it would be possible to treat in Egypt, the current junta and its top down method of change similarly to the various efforts of Communist and other authoritarian governments to save regimes through reform from above. They should be forced to discover that this method cannot be legitimate unless it is fully negotiated with the widest possible inclusion of opposition actors.

Fortunately, there should be several reasons why the reconstruction of the system of 1953 and after from above should not be easy this time:

First, the high level of mobilization of Egyptian society, and the sophistication of part of the grass roots. Undoubtedly many have understood the meaning of the coup within the revolution, and the military dictatorship that follows it. But challenging it too soon would have dramatically split society. The military is popular. So the right time to act would be when the Supreme Council of the Military, the true governing organ, undertakes unpopular actions, or fails to, in the end to carry out some measures like the lifting of the emergency. Second, conditions for organizing have undoubtedly improved. So if it was not easy before to create an umbrella organization of the main opposition groups, it should be much easier now. This should be done also because there may very well be a need to run a single oppositional candidate against a favored military candidate in presidential elections in what will remain a highly presidential system in the current amending scenario. But once formed, an umbrella organization of the type I have in mind has the right and duty to demand comprehensive and extended negotiations with the military government concerning the timing, procedures and guarantees of a democratic transition. Third, the link between power and outcome is not absolute. As I started out saying, Lenin was very surprised to lose free elections to a constituent assembly when his party already exercised dictatorship through the councils. Similarly, but on the right, General Kenan Evren was also highly surprised in Turkey after the coup of 1980 to lose an election in 1983 on behalf of the parties he favored, even as he banned the most popular leaders and parties. Thus even under the conditions of the present military dictatorship it will be worthwhile to struggle for relatively fair and free elections under international monitoring. Fourth, as the freedom struggles of other Arab countries influenced by Tunisia and Egypt continue, these can have democratizing effects on Egypt itself especially if at least one country actually manages to break the threshold of regime change to constitutional rule. Today we cannot tell which country this will be, but Tunisia remains the prime candidate.

Let me conclude. The events in Egypt should have inspired us all (except for the Israeli right perhaps that is losing an enabler to go on without changing their rejectionist policies). We should not however suspend our critical tools when we examine the results. The project of creating a constitutional democracy in the largest Arab country is far from done, and we should realize that the very revolutionary form the country’s liberation has taken represents serious dangers to the possibility of a genuine democratic regime change the popular movements are struggling for.

–Andrew Arato, New School


3 responses to “Arato on The Return of Revolutions”

  1. William Partlett Avatar

    Very interesting piece.

    Arendt describes the real success of the American revolution (in comparison with the French) as the fact that the revolution did not throw the voice of the people into a state of nature but instead the people’s revolutionary voice was organized into elected bodies that had been formed from below. (On Revolution, pp. 163-167).

    I dont know enough about Egypt to comment, but I think a logical next question to Prof. Arato’s essay is as follows: What existing organizational forms can the Egyptian opposition rely on to force negotiations with the military dictatorship?

    In the absence of other grass roots organizations, the new parliament should be able to serve this role. Although it will be divided (as all assemblies are), the parliament might present the best chance for the people to force negotiations about the powers of the presidency before a new president is elected.

  2. Andrew Arato Avatar
    Andrew Arato

    Great point. From 1989 on some of us (Ulrich Preuss, myself e.g.) believed that the civil society paradigm supplied what was missing in Arendt’s American exceptionalist argument. This worked imperfectly as the cases now show. Better in a place like South Africa where there were both deformed rule of law and even parliamentary traditions to interact with for long standing liberation movements.

    But the question with respect to Egypt remains valid, all the same, even if there are civil society organizations, rule of law structures and very deformed parliamentary institutoins. Still, a negotiated process also creates new institutions, and this is also part of Arendt’s analysis. Her power comes from organized bodies, somewhat tenuous in Egypt admittedly. But her authority comes from the mode of constitution making itself, from the process itself. American history proves her right. The thing began to have a cult around it after the adoption of the bill of rights, when the antifederalists’ proposals were finally accomodated. It is on this level that I find the Egyptian process deficient, so far at least.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    There seems to be confusion regarding a certain point – what happens if a majority of Egyptians vote “no” in the upcoming referendum? This post states Egypt would revert to its original constitution. Others, however, assert that they would have to go back to the drawing board as it were, and submit new amendments for another referendum.

    Egypt’s vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court is advocating for a no vote:

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