People who revolt against a hostile, dependent and unjust dominion in Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world are establishing a new social contract and values and are unified through an unconditionally prevailing normative-ethical principle. This principle, which can be termed “human dignity”, articulates an individual’s entitlement to be recognized as a subject of conscientious liberty.
In the first book of his Politics, Greek philosopher Aristotle characterizes man as zóon politikón. He hereby indicates that human beings, living as isolated individuals, are unable to fully develop their human existence. An individual needs to live in the polis, hence coexist in a society with other humans, in order to successfully cultivate the human condition. The Polis is not only in charge of the security and protection of citizens and the settlement of their disputes; moreover, it serves the complex task of giving all aspects of its citizens’ lives the impression of a happy life. To successfully carry out this task, the Polis requires a constitutional order that assures and guarantees fundamental freedom and liberty for all its citizens. The absence of such an order would bring about an unbalanced or excessive concentration of power and a relapse into inhuman conditions.
The existing form of government in most Arab countries fails to fulfill the well-being of its citizens, as the ruling elites are lead and dominated by external imperial forces, thus not the citizens but external allies, business elites, and lords of poverty constitute the main source of power. This lethal power structure emerged after the Arab World has experienced different forms of decolonization and independence movements after World War II, nonetheless the former British, French and Italian colonial rules were typically replaced by authoritative regimes, charismatic leaders, feudal lords, clientelism and emergency laws.
The post-colonial reality in the Arab world yielded a bundle of structural traits and weaknesses, introversive repression, a corrupt apparatus of state, a lacking separation of state and politics as well as political and economic instability. From the outset, the various regimes relinquished the development of a social contract in terms of democratic theory. Instead, they entered into economic and security treaties with hegemonic powers, assuming that these forces would secure their internal authority and protect them from their own population.
The various regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel, habitually oriented their fears towards a state of national emergency in order to maintain their internal command. This policy of fear was based on a security theology and a systematic coordination between neo-colonial, neo-imperial bureaucracies, political and economic hegemonies and organized military industrial machineries. This policy of coordinated terror against the population paved the way to establishing the state of exception where law is neutralized. In such situations, people tend to conceive norm and exception as distinct political-juridical collective conditions. According to Schmitt, the state is ordained to be a largely independent, quasi-dictatorial commissioner in charge of “extraordinary perils”. The imposition of a state of emergency in most Arab nations brings about the forsaking of standard law.
As the ruling elites aim to get by with vague, general rules (as well as with exceptions that are often unwritten and unknown to the larger population), they use their national right to self-preservation in order to generate a legitimacy that is based on a policy of fear and threat control. This legitimacy grants government authorities special privileges to disregard standard law when operating in a situation of state emergency. This state of emergency, far beyond constitutional principles, is then called on as a normative foundation that serves to justify the character of a dictatorship that does not expect acclaim from its citizens, and does not derive its own legitimacy from the approval or the recognition of its people. The justification of state interest to the state itself takes place outside standard legal boundaries.
This political economy of fear created an escalating vicious circle in which the imbalance of power resulted in an ever riding gap between the powerful (the included) and the powerless (the excluded). The included were convinced that the excluded subalterns cannot speak and are incapable of confronting the authorities for several reasons, including high cost of resistance, as well as fear from juridical and security systems operative in most of the Arab countries. However, for a government to be considered legitimate, it needs to be acknowledged by the people (its citizens). The approval of a regime by its citizens hence serves as a crucial criterion for legitimacy. From this point of view, the basis of power and the legitimacy of legal norms are not only dependent on their constitutional establishment, but also need to conform to basic claims for justice. A form of government that relentlessly violates basic claims for justice needs to be deprived of its legitimacy and legal nature. Citizens are not obliged to conform themselves to such a form of government.
We can hence conclude that the question of political conflict, or the question of resistance and civil disobedience get deflected if the respective legal system fails to provide institutions for legal and political control, which would otherwise serve to prevent the abuse of power. The tyrant’s authority to exercise governance is conferred to the people. This right to resistance was already considered a primordial human right, superior to the power of any political organization, when the human rights movement was initiated. The Déclaration des droit de l‘homme et du citoyen of 1789 states in article 2:
The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression
Despite this, the double standard of certain politicians and western media became apparent during the past few weeks, when they first offered their support to dictator Ben Ali and then labeled the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt an Islamic threat. They did so despite knowing that young, mostly secular individuals who fight for liberty and better future prospects spearheaded the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. This brings forth the colonial viewpoint of Western politicians, who believe that the Arab world is not yet ready for a democratic transformation and that a transformation like this could only be accomplished with support from the Western head teacher.
If George Bush (senior), Helmut Kohl and other Western politicians had reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall in a comparable manner, the heirs of Honecker and Ceau?escu would perhaps still be in power today. Social exclusion and a lack of democracy were not of top priority, and there was a universal confidence that the population of the Arab world would never forsake its passive behavior and revolt against the miserable circumstances.
However, when dictator Ben Ali was forced to flee due to the recent revolution in Tunisia, people realized that the regime of antiquated tyrannies could be overthrown by the country’s own population, and that the people in Arab states could recapture their conscience as well as their history. They could hereby regain the experience of shaping their own history as well as their own responsibility for history.
What we are seeing today in Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world is the most vigorous form of resistance against traditional social models, corruption and the abuse of power. At the same time, it has become obvious that we need a new benchmark in order to derive contemporary, exemplary principles of order for communal life. This new benchmark can only be defined as the human being itself, characterized as a free, rational individual. The individual, asked to employ autonomous self-determination, should grow to be the origin of, as well as the benchmark for, rational coexistence.
Jamil Salem is a researcher at Birzeit University’s Institute of Law. He is involved in several interdisciplinary research projects in the fields of socio-legal studies, legal theory and history of law.