The “street” remains a street

By Adel Al Toraifi

10.03.2011

There is a heated debate taking place in the Middle East regarding the popular uprisings plaguing the region and this is a debate that is only intensifying day by day. This debate can be summarized as follows: Firstly, there are those who are of the view that enough is enough, and that it is now time for the protestors to hand over the reins of power, whether to the transitional government in Tunisia or the supreme military council in Egypt, so that these bodies can do their duty and restore stability and security, and begin the practical arrangements required for the transition of power. As for those who hold the second opinion, they argue that the revolution must continue until it has achieved all its objectives, and this means continuing demonstrations on the streets, and not imposing any ceiling on the protestors demands, so that all the demonstrators demands can be met and the people can seize their rights with their own hands, from the state apparatus which previously mistreated them under the former regime.

The Libyan crisis is ongoing, and in recent days it has begun to resemble a civil war, between those who call themselves revolutionaries, and those who continue to support the Gaddafi regime. No one knows what will happen in Libya, but whilst armed conflict is ongoing there, and whilst the death toll continues to rise, the model of taking to the street seems to be far more costly than was originally promised by those who advocated revolution.

Needless to say, there is no longer any talk about the return of former regimes, but the debate about what should be done now is still raging. Some wish to continue with this state of revolution regardless of the risk to state institutions and by doing so they are placing the unity of the Arab republic, and its future, at stake. There are genuine fears about the collapse of the Arab republic system, which suffers from fundamental problems in its governing structure, with the existence of racial, regional, ethnic, and sectarian differences which threaten the basic unity of the Arab state as we know it, and there is significant evidence of this in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Bahrain and elsewhere.

Politicians in the region are divided between those who believe they are immune to what is happening – and these politicians are deluding themselves – and those who are taking the initiative – often in an improvisational manner – to provide some political or financial concessions in order to rein in the fantasies of the public, which are being greatly influenced by what is happening in the region. But whilst politicians are busy calculating the cost, the majority of intellectuals and writers, in turn, are split between those who are concerned by this newfound “logic of the street” and those who are taking a gamble to stand side-by-side with the “revolutionary youth”, whatever their demands or slogans, on the grounds that you cannot stand against the demands of the youth, as they form the largest demographic in the region.

It is not surprising that writers and intellectuals have rushed to join the list of signatories to [revolutionary] political statements, or are participating enthusiastically on social networking websites, under the pretext of supporting the “legitimate” demands and voice of the youth. However when we examine this further, we find that writers and intellectuals have no option but to side with the youth because the majority of the existing regimes are not worth defending, either because they are undemocratic on the one hand, or because they have failed to achieve – or have corrupted – the mechanisms for political participation, and thus are nothing more than an obstacle to freedom of expression. For such intellectuals, it is not acceptable to stand by the state – or the regime – because the youthful majority is in opposition. Moreover, the youth are prepared to confront political regimes with mass demonstrations, which provide them with legitimacy, and regardless how hard these regimes might try, they are unable to break up these demonstrations by use of force – as they were previously able in the past. This is because the outside world is watching what is happening, and any state-sponsored confrontation of the masses would be met with dozens of youths, who support this rumbling revolutionary wave.

Here we find ourselves faced with two opposing arguments: there is the logic of the state, whether it is democratic or autocratic, and the logic of the “street”. The state was, and still is, the primary provider for stability and order, and if it is taken hostage by a minority of protestors, occupying the streets and invading government buildings, then the idea of civil coexistence would find itself overwhelmed by those who want revenge or to settle scores, or who possess ideals regarding a pure utopian state that is free from corruption. The problem with the resorting to the “street” is that it has no face or name, and transferring power to such an unpredictable crowed would be tantamount to taking a shot in the dark, and this explains the current chaos in the region. Intellectuals, or writers, can choose not to support this regime, or that regime, but when they bless the “street” they are presenting it with absolute authority which is no less ethically dangerous than the power wielded by a totalitarian regime or an individual dictator. In addition to this, some intellectuals are seeking to brand any opinion that disagrees with the street as a justification for the tyranny of their rule, and in doing so, these intellectuals themselves are practicing tyranny and rhetorical violence against those who peacefully hold counter viewpoints.

There is great danger in “justifying the existence of a state of statelessness”, or “prolonging a state of revolution”, as Mshari Al-Zaydi wrote recently. The state revolutions, as Al-Zaydi argues, will continue “every day but under a new title, and with new victims falling prey to anger.” Ali Salem, an Egyptian playwright, also warned – in an article for Asharq Al-Awsat – against “the weakening of the state” or even abolishing some of its institutes, under the pretext of cleaning up the political system. The scenes of chaos which countries such as Egypt witnessed following the handover of power to the military council are unjustifiable and unacceptable. How can state institutions be violated, and government documents be seized by anonymous crowds, who use the street to impose their will? How can anybody justify the speech given by new Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf at Tahrir Square, when he said “you have completed your lesser jihad, and now you are facing the greater jihad of restoring Egypt”? What jihad is this prime minister, who was appointed by military decree following the departure of a president and the suspension of the constitution, talking about?

The “street” is not a source of legitimacy, because it only represents the wishes of those who participate, whether they are idealists, or thieves. Moreover, the state, as a civil institute, cannot compete with the noisy street. As for those intellectuals who seek to ride the wave of the revolution by building a rapport with the Arab street, they must remember that it is the same street that opposed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and cheered suicide bombers in the occupied territories of Palestine.

There is a big difference between democratic reform, and resorting to the street. The first seeks to build a state, whilst the second seeks to overcome it. As Hannah Arendt once said: “revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it”

First Published in Asharq Alawsat

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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