Human Dignity and the Incomplete Arab Spring

by | 13 Sep 2011

The political power of a protest movement can be seen by looking at the protest group’s awareness of its own position and the balance of power in which the group finds itself. Another factor is the group’s ability to resist its own integration into the hegemonic order.

Protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria succeeded in loudly and clearly expressing their demand for freedom and liberation from the shackles of dictatorship, without being influenced by the established political powers and the various reactionary currents. At the same time, they refused to subordinate themselves to a predetermined political procedure. The refusal by various youth movements to establish themselves formally as a new political party, which was initially interpreted as a weakness by the media, turned out to be an essential advantage. Thus, this movement determined the discourse and managed to lead the way ethically and morally, i.e. to embed its own moral concepts, which resulted from its social position, in the everyday mindset of the majority of people. These moral concepts were thereby made into a social attraction.

However, in order to realize the transformation from one to another social system and to achieve liberation of the subordinated groups, the basic ideas of the revolution will have to be embedded within a new constitutional order. This order will have to act as a stabilizer of power in the dynamic, inter-subjective relationship between existing and new parties and the revolutionary groups.

On the other hand, during the period of nation building and the creation of a new social contract that seals the tie between individuals and politics, one has to be aware of the conservative and reactionary forces that aim to either reproduce old conditions or succumb to transcendental forces as a main source of power. During this critical phase it is hence imperative for the revolutionary movements to ensure that the drafting of the new order, is based on the sovereignty of the people, the division of power, and that the autonomous institutions of the state are committed to elementary rights.

It follows that the mission of the progressive youth movement and the revolutionary forces within the society is to ensure the organization and systematization of a knowledge that is already present in the masses, and to advance the replacement of former conditions with a new collective will. It is hence a permanent duty of the revolutionary forces to repeatedly examine politics for their compatibility with the revolution’s core values.

Human Dignity and Equality

The cry of the revolting masses for freedom, equality and respect for human dignity dictates the contents of the new social contract, as these values act as a fundamental measure for the allocation of rights and duties. As such, they form the supreme criterion for the development of human deeds, of social institutions, of single legal norms as well as of entire legal systems. These values are of a pre-state nature, since these values are not owed to the state but are innate in humans. In this spirit, the dignity of man is the normative foundation of the new order, and the basic rights are the instruments used to protect this dignity. The demand for dignity contains an appeal to treat all citizens in a state as equals, since human dignity means equal dignity for all humans.

This call for equality has always been emphasized. Aristotle, in his “Nicomachean Ethics”, labels the truthful being as a “friend of equality” and remarks that equality is actually the “core of justice”. The reason for interlinking human dignity, justice and equality is as follows: when rights and duties, goods and burdens should be distributed without favoritism in a democratic entity, one requires a standard that enjoys general application beyond distinct situations. To apply this standard means to treat humans equally in all comparable situations. Owing to this linkage, the validity of legal norms will not only depend on their standardized creation, even when they have come into existence through a democratic legal generation process, but also on their conformity with fundamental appeals for justice.

Actions beyond colonial borders

Until just recently, the patrimonial state was the ruling force that citizens had to protect themselves from. In the course of the revolution (particularly in Tunisia and Egypt), one could experience how the state makes efforts to portray itself as the guardian of human rights. Nonetheless, the relationship between citizens and the state remains ambivalent. This transitional phase offers an exceptionally great structural temptation for the state to extend its authority at the expense of its citizens’ rights and liberties. This was clearly visible when the Egyptian military court tried to “attack” the democratic movement by sentencing critics of the supreme military council to imprisonment.

On the other hand, it was evident from the beginning that the revolutionary forces cannot limit their actions within the inherited colonial borders of each state, when securing the feats of the revolution. The revolution should spread regionally. At this point it needs to be emphasized that the protest movements in the various Arab states cannot be seen as traditional and segmentary “societies”, but rather as a cross-border community, whose solidarity develops automatically due to similarity in a shared social situation. It was therefore possible for the revolutionary spark to be transmitted from Tunisia to Egypt, and for that spark to lead to spontaneous uprisings of the public in numerous Arab countries following the downfall of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

On the long run, the revolutionary forces need to develop ways and methods for this solidarity to lead to unfeigned regional collaboration, for example to support the progressive, revolutionary forces in Libya in preventing a renewed colonization of the country, but also to establish means of communication with progressive forces in countries that have not yet been reached by the revolution (e.g. Saudi Arabia and other members of the so called Gulf Cooperation Council, that constitute the main counterrevolutionary force in the region).

In summary, one can say that the Arab Spring, although still incomplete, has so far managed to recognize an individual and his dignity as part of a bigger organization, without losing his autonomy therein. This new individual can pursue common objectives along with others and will thereby inevitably turn into a tool, yet does not have to fear that the revolutionary wave will cause him to lose his personality as an end in itself. Human dignity forms the fundamental and indispensable standard of legitimacy of the new social and political order, and this new order cannot be reversed, even when the reactionary forces and the traditional regimes are trying their best to prevent this from happening.

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.


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