Democracy in revolution: the Mediterranean moment

By showing us the possibility of democracy in revolution, they have ignited a revolution in democracy, one that is redefining the meaning of both terms.

If accounting begins from the self-immolation of the Tunisian fruit seller, Mohamed Bouaziz, on 17 December 2010, we have entered the tenth month of the Mediterranean revolutions. The mercurial speed with which this impulse has spread is a testament to both the global spread of human discontent and the equally global resonance of a local act of resistance. That this resonance has sliced through the global democratic divide, cascading through Madrid, Cairo, Benghazi, Manama, Athens, and Damascus alike, is perhaps the greatest sign of its profundity. That these global connections, so evident to the protestors, have been mostly ignored by the western press is equally striking, if not symptomatic of a larger structural flaw in western political epistemology.             

Revolution and democracy

More than anything else, the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings have reawakened the foundational and historical connection between mass popular uprising and democracy. In doing so, the first revolutions of the twenty-first century, in under two months, annulled the historical baggage the term had acquired from the century before:  the violent overthrow of a political regime in an orchestrated (or hijacked) action, commanded by a secular (1917) or religious (1979) revolutionary vanguard.  Bypassing this legacy, Tunisia and Egypt reached back to the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century, to the era in our collective history soon to engross both Haiti and Egypt, where the two terms, revolution and democracy, were mutually and simultaneously instated.

Ironically enough, the present-day heirs to these revolutions understand the relations between these terms very differently from the Egyptians in Tahrir Square.  The approach of the mainstream western media and the US Administration to the Egyptian revolution affords us a telling portrait. 

From the outset, President Obama and the western press repeatedly described the crowd revolting in Tahrir Square as the “will of the Egyptian people”.  Alain Badiou has correctly pointed out the irony of the west in this regard, which nominated 500,000 protestors as legitimate representatives of 80 million, when within their own societies, reasonable people living under the law express their will through opinion polls or elections.  When similar numbers of Americans protested against the Iraq war in 2003, George Bush condemned the demonstrators to insignificance with a single sentence.  “That’s what’s so great about America, we are a democracy and these people have the right to express their opinion.”  When things get a little nastier, as Erik Swyngedouw points out, participants of mass uprisings in the global North are described as rebels or anarchists and every effort is made to assure that the ‘rioters’ are not identified with The People. 

Yet the reference to Tahrir Square as the will of the people was made even more problematic by another continuous refrain: the repeated exhortations by western governments to ensure an ‘orderly transition to democracy’. Taken together, these statements attest to the conceptual separation of democracy, in both time and practice, from the revolutionary event that precedes it. The Egyptian revolution might or might not lead to democracy, and will be judged as a democratic revolution if a democracy is established as a result of it.  The same will of the Egyptian people, expressed during the revolution through their occupation of Tahrir Square, following the ‘transition to democracy’ would now have to be vocalized through orderly polls and politics.          

This response is not owing to western geo-strategic thinking (both the US and EU states were caught completely off-guard by the events) but rather expresses the same conservative periodization with which the west now interprets its own foundational past.  This dominant, though by no means hegemonic, narrative of the American and French Revolutions bounds revolution as a period enabling, but also distinctly before, democracy.  Revolutionary acts, from the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence, to the Tennis Court Oath and the storming of the Bastille, are given their due importance, but also separated from the actual functioning of the democracy that follows it.  Hence the dominant interpretation of the crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion as the (necessary) assertion of federal power and sovereignty, or the continued intrusion of the “will of the French people” through mass popular uprisings after 1789 as the descent of the French Revolution into demagoguery and terror.     

The democratic space of revolutionary occupation

Yet, returning to Tahrir square, there was a lot more going on during the three weeks of mass uprisings that brought down Mubarak’s regime.  Starting on January 25, hundreds of thousands of people from all over Egypt descended onto one square in Cairo – and what’s more – decided to stay.  As the state apparatus withdrew (though not before committing 800+ murders), upwards of a million people, left to their own devices, had to figure out how they would live together in a square in order to sustain a revolt aimed outside of it. 

Badiou once wrote that:  In the midst of a revolutionary event, the people is made up of those who know how to solve the problems that the event imposes on them. The people of Tahrir square organized and orchestrated their own security, dealt with human and regular waste, and created services for the elderly and poor.  They set prices for vendors, established supply networks for food and information, handled hired agitators, and protected each other’s religious practices.

The importance of these gestures cannot be overemphasized; they stand as the critical communal complement to the political presence of Egyptians within the square, a presence expressing the ‘withdrawal of their consent’ from Mubarak’s regime.  The Egyptian people first defined themselves through their political occupation of the square and increasingly, as the days passed, by how they occupied and existed within it.  Tahrir Square was not the coming together of a million atomized and individuated Egyptians but rather the stage on which the new Egyptian society was performed and presented.  In their generosity, their tolerance, their humour, camaraderie, and song, the Egyptian people asserted their values and boundaries both to themselves and the whole world.  The continuous occupation of the square conjoined the political and communal forms of expression, allowing each to be understood through the other.  In this way, Tahrir square, if temporarily, became the site of a political revolution and the democratic institution of the revolutionary subject(s). This interdependence and simultaneity of democracy and revolution was perhaps best expressed by a young Egyptian who was among the first to occupy the square, when he said:  “Starting today, the 25th of January, I take charge of the affairs of my country.”

To the extent that it also privileges the political over the communal, the leftist response has been guilty of a similar blindness to that of the world’s authorities. The theoreticians of the left greeted the North African revolutions with open arms.  They spoke of ‘unprecedented possibilities’, ‘reconfigurations’, and insisted on the absolute indeterminateness and contingent beauty of revolutionary creation.  With the fall of Mubarak and the dispersal (voluntarily and forced) of the square, their initial optimism has sobered, insisting on the need for vigilance against (or displaying bitterness towards) the hijacking of the revolution by the military or Muslim Brotherhood.  Some have tried, very cautiously it must be added, to pinpoint the underlying meaning of this revolutionary spirit (rejection of neo-liberalism, anti-corruption, social justice, etc.), while others have harped on the very “wordless” nature of the modern social space, linking the now declared “end of the Egyptian revolution” with the London riots, both expressing (and crippled) by a spirit of revolt without revolution.   

Yet all of these responses miss the true revolutionary (re)creation of 2011: continuous occupation of a physical space as a social/political act. The self-organization and self-institution of Tahrir Square as a running and functioning society, one that cannot be separated from the political expression conditioning the occupation in the first place, proved not to be an isolated or enclosed event.  Rather than end with the dispersal of the square, this new form has resonated across the Mediterranean (and beyond), taking on new expressions and dynamics in its translation.                    

The Mediterranean moment

Within months, Tahrir Square inspired large occupations of similar central squares in Bahrain, Libya, Greece, and Spain.  The latter two, staged against a democratic backdrop, bring the relation of democracy and revolution into particularly stark relief.      

Both the Indignados across Spain and the Greeks occupying Syntagma Square are revolting against a democracy they feel affords them no voice or control over their lives, calling for a new type of society which “treats its members as people not commodities.”  While both participants and their commentators have rightly questioned the inadequacy of this political agenda (one explicitly shying away from positive programs of sociopolitical change), this focus on political articulation has taken attention away from the square itself.  In and through the occupation of the very space of their revolt against a ‘democratic’ society that denies their existence, they are putting into practice the democracy they believe should take its place.       

The institution of nightly general assembly meetings, of various sub-committees charged with food, protection, outreach, horticulture, information, tattoos, and web-presence - each creating plural (physical and conceptual) spaces informed by and daily redefining  the revolution - have all drawn public attention. Yet, perhaps even more telling has been the extreme detail these occupations have paid to the structure of participation itself.  In this respect, the minutes of the People's Assembly of Syntagma Square make for fascinating reading. There is as much attention devoted to the how of political/social life in square: the ban on party and union insignia, the drawing of lots and time limits governing speech in the assembly, the coordination of meetings with public transit to assure greater participation, etc.; then there is to the what: articulating political manifestos and the position of the Assembly to its outside (whether in relation to the protests in the upper square or Greek society more broadly). 

Most importantly, the minutes attest to the profound interdependence of these two dimensions, one equally present in Cairo and Madrid.  The positioning of the square in relation to national and/or international politics and the institution of the society within it, the entwining of the ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ of the square, stands as the defining feature of these occupations.  The common link uniting Tahrir Square to all the others that have taken from its example is the inseparability of the political act from the collective organization of the space through where this act is performed. In fact, the longer these continuous occupations persist, the more deeply embedded one has become in the other. 

A new script

Regardless of their final political outcome, the 2011 revolts have already reestablished mass continuous occupation as a political/social form: the coming together of people who have both withdrawn their consent to be governed by the existing order and equally importantly, discovered the responsibility, dignity, difficulty, and above all, joy, of instituting a society outside of it. 

They have, through these occupations, reaffirmed not only that democracy and revolution are co-extensive, but have challenged us all to think about why we have separated them as well as the consequences of doing so.  In this respect, they have managed to wipe out, in less than ten months, the legacy of the twentieth century.  By showing us the possibility of democracy in revolution, they have ignited a revolution in democracy, one that is redefining the meaning of both terms. 

Even if all of the 2011 occupations fizzle out, they have already accomplished two things.  First, for the occupiers themselves, participation alone has enacted a collective self-education in the most profound sense, forming, as Stathis Gourgouris has argued, a new generation of citizens.  Second, the squares of 2011, closely watched by activists worldwide, stand as a seismic challenge to the strategies and imaginations of contemporary social ‘movements’.  From licensed protests with pre-defined march routes to illegal direct actions, from flash mobs to the cyber-attacks of Anonymous, a logic of collection and dispersal came to define how we thought of resistance in recent years.  Against this logic (one mimicking, coincidentally, the investment and withdrawal of international capital itself), the Mediterranean moment has reintroduced the continuous occupation of a physical space as a social and political form.

One of the most striking aspects of the 1871 Commune was how quickly the Parisians organized themselves.  The moment the call of revolution went up (and later, was threatened) they knew exactly what to do.  It was as if they were acting out a script that had been written in 1789, a script reenacted and revised in 1792, 1832, and again in 1848.  There is little doubt in my mind that the occupiers of the Mediterranean squares are the collective playwrights of a new script that will, in the decades to come, be globally performed and altered over and over and over again. 

About the author

Mehmet Dosemeci is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University in New York.  His research interests include Turkish-European dialogue in the 20th century and the history of radical democracy.