Are the Arab revolutions dead yet?

In his writings dedicated to the Arab revolutions, French philosopher Alain Badiou has maintained a keen interest in the ways in which the uprisings have unfolded over the last three years. In their best case scenarios, these uprisings and revolutionary surges announce a certain “reawakening of history,” bringing closure to the narratives of liberalism’s final defeat of totalitarianism, which coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union (an event which was christened as “the end of history” back then). In his book, “The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings,” Badiou affirms that the Arab revolutions commemorate a rebirth of history defined by a continued struggle for justice and equality. The idea of Tahrir, despite its various setbacks along a turbulent route, is still teeming with emancipatory possibilities, yet also with false hopes and disappointing outcomes.

However in his recent seminar, “On the Immanence of Truth,” Badiou seems to be hastily announcing the death of Arab revolutions — the Egyptian revolution to be more precise. In a defeated tone of voice, he announces that spectacles held in public squares are based on what he calls negative unities, that is, collectivities built for the purpose of short-lived demands (such as the immediate ousting of Hosni Mubarak or Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali), as well as the representation of the interests of the urbanized sector of the Egyptian population. In other words, what he is saying is that the spectacles were incapable of reaching much beyond city centers.

Furthermore, he argues that during the sit-in at Tahrir square, the assembly of protesters, made up of members of the Islamic current and a smaller bloc of pro-democracy activists, was temporarily united against Mubarak, but was in truth fighting along a “modernity-tradition” axis. One section of the square reduced revolutionary demands to an identity-based discourse, while the other bloc secretly wished for the illusory benefits and freedoms of western modernity — or so his argument goes.

I find Badiou’s analysis of the current Egyptian predicament to be extremely reductive. In my opinion, Badiou might have completely succumbed to the media’s portrayals of the square and its symbolic importance for the Egyptian revolution. He fails to note how global and local media have limited the Egyptian struggle to the image of the public square in an attempt to make it the only legitimate site of political contest (insisting later that the uprising escalated on the “peaceful” mandate of Tahrir square demonstrators).

One also needs to read into the unique schema of Egypt’s urban-rural divide (the extreme fluidity of it) and the ways in which informal areas and urbanized villages, which are found on the rims of Cairo and Suez, played a crucial role in the revolution. On 25 January 2011, the dispersal of protests and violence spread from the outskirts of Cairo and Suez and moved inwards (one of the first marches began from a largely urbanized village, known as Nahya, and made its way to a Cairene square). One must also pay attention to the ways in which police units were stationed at the main exits of Cairo to monitor inflows and outflows of villagers, in fear of them potentially joining the protests. In other words, the revolutionary surges were perhaps primarily funneled through the fluidity of the urban-rural divide and against the direct policing and monitoring of it (a case which every interim government following the revolution promised to regulate and control through security-based solutions).

What is the true source of Badiou’s disappointment in the Egyptian revolution, then? In my humble opinion, I believe that Badiou speaks from a position of despair in Europe (once a place of great revolutionary ghosts) but where there is currently no hope for revolutionary change. He is failing in his analysis of the Arab uprisings simply because he seems to impose his own personal sense of “finitude” on an ongoing struggle. Finitude is what Badiou describes as a continual attempt by the current global order to limit the emancipatory possibilities in every popular declaration of protest against the order’s inequalities and injustices.  It is an attempt to hijack the emancipatory potential of any protest through narrow nationalist agendas, the false promises of democratic transition and western freedoms or identity discourse. What happened in the case of Ukraine is a perfect example of this growing sense of European finitude, which influenced Badiou’s desperate gaze at global dissent.

Badiou declares the bankruptcy of Europe and Western modernity, and encourages those who “push the boundaries” to find a better alternative to Western modernity that is open to a radically different future through negating the present-day conditions of global capitalism. In doing so, he falls into a sense of despair when they do not fulfill their “promises” as the revolutionary route takes a more complicated turn.

I acknowledge a lot of Badiou’s claims about the fate of the Egyptian revolution, but my problem is that his sense of dissatisfaction is eerily similar to those of the European liberals who have openly accused the revolutionary democratic bloc of failing to support the democratic transition in Egypt. These European liberal analysts have repeatedly used a culturalist critique against a small democratic bloc. They have portrayed this bloc as being culturally inauthentic and cut it off from the majority of their countrymen — hence the revolution “failed.”

The reality is that Western media continues to ignore the morally mind-boggling and complicated political narrative of the revolution in favor of the more simplistic assumptions of the culturalist critique. Western analysts continue to ignore what the Brotherhood did once in power. Following their ascension to power, the Muslim Brotherhood kept the Mubarak regime intact through a loose coalition with the Egyptian military, the judiciary and the security apparatus. In addition, their choices resulted in grave political consequences for the Egyptian revolution that we are living through today. Despite this, Badiou, like other more liberal-minded analysts, focuses solely on culturalist assumptions about the democratic bloc, ignoring the complexity of the Egyptian situation under the Brotherhood. In my view, Badiou falls into the same trap of announcing prematurely that the Egyptian revolution has already reached a “farcical” moment.

Let’s go back to Badiou’s analysis for a second and ask: what does he propose instead of the public square spectacles, which are based on what he describes as “negative unities?”

“For an invention of history, a creation, to come about,” he writes, “that is, something endowed with a genuine infiniteness — there has to be a new form of declaration, establishing an alliance between intellectuals and a large section of the masses.”

In his last formulation, Badiou seems to be prescribing Leninist solutions with little amendment — shadows of the necessity of a vanguard loom in his arguments.  In doing so, he is following in the footsteps of a lot of old Leftist Arab intellectuals who grew weary and suspecting of the Arab revolutions, such as Saadi Youseff (the Iraqi émigré poet) and Sonallah Ibrahim (the famous Egyptian novelist). For them, such popular uprisings clearly lacked moral and political guidance. 

From the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, Sonallah was quite cautious not to describe the violent events in Egypt as revolutionary, since such events failed to follow a Leninist model. In the midst of the Libyan revolution, Saadi Youseff became an ardent defender of Gaddafi as a legendary icon of anti-imperialist struggle. Along a similar vein, Badiou took a skeptical position towards the Libyan revolution in his bitter battle with another French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, who offered covert support of NATO’s intervention in Libya. Badiou was quick to repudiate Nancy in an open letter, contending that the Libyan protests were perhaps conflated by Western media propaganda. He said that there was a visible absence of women in protests in Benghazi, concluding that they were therefore not led by the masses and don’t qualify as a “people’s revolution” like Egypt or Tunisia. 

One must not assume that I was once a supporter of foreign intervention in Libya, but what seemed to be disastrous in my opinion is Badiou’s failure to see the complete lack of choices presented to the Libyan people. It seemed to me that the people were stuck between two imperialist moments: either remain with Gaddafi or endure foreign intervention (one is a falsely anti-imperialist visage, and the other the direct representative of it). For an army of armchair leftists in Europe, who were obviously theorizing from a position of pure moral superiority, the comforting choice was supporting Gaddafi, while ignoring the atrocities he committed against his people.    

How could we really judge the path of the revolution, given the poor choices that the people of Libya were presented at the time of their uprising — or perhaps even in Egypt at the present moment? I think the answer should be left open.

On the Egyptian front, the revolution has passed through critical ethical and political tests after the attack on Rabea square, which Badiou compared too hastily perhaps to the massacre of the Paris commune in his seminar. In my view, the democratic bloc continues to struggle with a legacy of thorns in the present moment. It seeks to create a margin of potentiality in the worst of predicaments, as it is caught between the return of a military dictatorship and a failed Islamist attempt at hijacking the revolution in the name of identity politics.

In the end, it is the people who will continue to pay for their desire for freedom, and falling for false promises or illusory moments of emancipation. It seems to me that we are always caught in this circular question: whether the timing of revolution is already always too late or perhaps too soon. Badiou bestows his own sense of finitude on the Egyptian revolution without trying to grapple with the complexities at hand. 

Fouad Halbouni 

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