The Arab Spring: Remembering Futures Present

On the 17th of December, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young tunisian street vendor is harassed by the police in the small town of Sidi Bouzid.  He lacks the proper authorisation to sell and his goods are therefore confiscated.  In desperation and in response, before the local administrative building of the province, he douses himself with petrol and sets himself alight.  Bouazizi will die on the 4th of January of the new year, but the revolt sparked in his country by his act will bring the 23 year old dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to an end on the 14th of January.

The wave of rebellions that followed in the arab world, in egypt, yemen, bahrain, syria, libya, and beyond, can only be described as extraordinary, as one dictator after another was confronted by literally hundreds of thousands of people who could no longer remember to be afraid.  A single slogan spread like fire: “The people wants to bring down the regime!”/”Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam!

If the explosion was not completely without antecedents (the seemingly endless political and economic crises of arab national authorities and popular struggles against them are part of the recent history of the region), its contagious force suggested something more than just one more protest.  In the arab spring, political power was suspended by people taking to the streets and squares, people who demanded not only the removal of tyrants, who called not only for social and economic justice, but in whose gesture of occupation, affirmed themselves as people, as people united, outside and beyond the State, and if necessary, against it.  Nowhere was this more powerfully expressed than in the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and few authors at the time captured as well what was at stake in Tahrir, than Alain Badiou.

With whatever differences we may have with Badiou’s politics, we share below a translation of Badiou’s text, that originally appeared in Le Monde (18/02/2011)

Tunisia, Egypt: When an east wind sweeps away the arrogance of the West

The east wind prevails over the west wind. How long will the West, the fading and idle “international community” of those who consider themselves masters of the world, continue to give lessons in good management and proper behaviour to the rest of the planet? Isn’t it laughable to see these dutiful intellectuals, these soldiers dispatched from the capitalist-parliamentary system which we treat as some kind of moth-eaten paradise, offer themselves to the magnificent people of Tunisia and Egypt to teach these savages the ABCs of “democracy”?

What appallingly enduring colonial arrogance! Given the situation of political misery that we’ve been in for the past 30 years, isn’t it obvious that it is we who have everything to learn from the current  popular uprisings? That it is we who need to urgently and closely study everything that over there has made it possible to overthrow by collective action  governments that were oligarchic, corrupt, and moreover – perhaps above all – in a situation of humiliating vassalage vis-à-vis Western states?

Yes, we must be the pupils of these movements, not their stupid teachers. Because, in the unique brilliance of their inventions, they bring to life certain political principles which for a long time we’ve been told were obsolete. Above all, the principle that Marat ceaselessly declared: when it comes to liberty, equality and emancipation – we owe everything to mass riots.

It is right to rebel. Just as our states and those who rely on them (parties, trade unions and servile intellectuals) prefer management to politics, so they prefer demands to revolt and “orderly transition” to any rupture. But the Egyptian and Tunisian people remind us that mass uprising is the only action commensurate with a collective feeling of revulsion at those who occupy state power. And in this case, there is only one slogan that links together the disparate elements of the crowd: “You, there, get out!” The exceptional importance of this revolt, its critical power, is that the slogan repeated by millions of people gives the measure of what will be, indubitably and irreversibly, its first victory: the flight of the man who’s been singled out by the slogan. And whatever happens next, this triumph of a popular action – one that was illegal by its very nature – will have forever been victorious.

The fact that a revolt against state power can be absolutely victorious is a teaching of universal significance. Such a victory always indicates the horizon of every collective action withdrawn from the authority of the law, what Marx named “the withering away of the state”. It tells us that one day the people, freely associated through the deployment of their own creative power, will do without the grim coercion of the state. It is this ultimate idea which explains why a revolt bringing down established authority triggers such boundless enthusiasm around the world.

A single spark can start a prairie fire. Everything started with the self-immolation of a man reduced to unemployment, who was forbidden from exercising the miserable trade that allowed him to survive, who was slapped by a policewoman to make him understand what was real in this vile world. This gesture snowballed over the next few days and weeks, until millions of people were crying with joy in a far-off square and powerful potentates were abruptly forced to flee.

But where does this astounding expansion come from? Is it the spreading of an epidemic of freedom? No. Jean-Marie Gleize put it poetically: “A revolutionary movement does not spread by contamination, but by resonance. Something built here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something built over there.” This resonance is what we call an “event”. The event is the sudden creation, not of a new reality, but of a myriad of new possibilities.

None of them is a repetition of what is already known. That is why it is obscurantist to say “this movement calls for democracy” (meaning, the “democracy” that we enjoy in the West), or “this movement calls for social improvement” (meaning, the average prosperity of our petit bourgeoisie). Starting from almost nothing, but resonating everywhere, the popular uprising has created unknown possibilities for the whole world. The word “democracy” is hardly spoken in Egypt. They speak instead of “a new Egypt”, of “true Egyptian people”, of a constituent assembly, of a total transformation of life, of unprecedented and previously inconceivable possibilities.

This is about a new prairie, no longer the one that the spark of the uprising set aflame. This prairie to come is to be found between the declaration of a reversal of forces and the taking up of new tasks. Between what was said by a young Tunisian: “We, sons of workers and peasants, are stronger than the criminals”, and what was said by a young Egyptian: “Starting today, 25 January, I am taking over the affairs of my country.”

The people, and the people alone, is the creator of universal history. It is quite striking that in our West, governments and media acknowledge the rebels in a Cairo square as “the Egyptian people”. What’s going on here? The only “people” these powers usually consider as “reasonable” or “legal” are the majorities thrown up by a focus group or an election. How is it that all of a sudden, hundreds of thousands of rebels can represent a nation of 80 million? This is a lesson we should not forget and will not forget.

Beyond a certain threshold of determination, obstinacy and courage, the people can indeed concentrate their existence in a square, an avenue, a few factories, a university… The whole world will witness this courage, and above all the amazing creations that accompany it. These creations are proof that a people has come to be. As one Egyptian protester forcefully put it: “Before, I watched television. Now it’s the television that’s watching me.”

In the wake of an event, the people is composed of those who can resolve the problems posed by the event. For instance, the occupation of a square requires food, sleeping arrangements, guards, flags, prayers, defensive battles. This ensures that the place where all this happens, the symbolic place, is safeguarded for its people, at any price. These are problems that can seem insoluble as hundreds of thousands of people arrive from everywhere, especially since the state has disappeared from the square. To solve insoluble problems without the help of the state – that is the destiny of an event. And that is what makes a people exist, suddenly and for an indefinite time, there where it has decided to gather.

There is no communism without the communist movement. The popular uprising of which we speak is clearly without a party, without a hegemonic organisation, without a recognised leader. There will be time to assess whether this characteristic is a strength or a weakness. In any case  this is the reason why what is happening has all the features of what one should call movement communism – and in a very pure form, perhaps the purest since the Paris Commune.

“Communism” here means the joint creation of a collective destiny. This “common” has two special features. First, it is generic, representing all humanity in one place. In this place, you find all the various sorts of people that make up a people, any kind of speech is listened to, every proposition is examined, every difficulty treated on its own terms. Second, it overcomes all the major contradictions which the state claims only it can manage (without ever finally overcoming them): contradictions between intellectuals and manual workers, men and women, poor and rich, Muslims and Coptic Christians, provincials and city dwellers…

Thousands of new possibilities concerning these contradictions rise up at every moment, ones that the state – any state – is completely blind to. One sees young female doctors who have come from the provinces to treat the wounded sleeping in the midst of a circle of fierce young men, and they sleep more soundly than they have ever done, knowing that nobody will touch a hair on their head. One sees an engineers’ organisation talking to youth from the suburbs, urging them to hold the square, to protect the movement with their fighting spirit. One sees a row of Christians standing watch over Muslims bowed in prayer. One sees traders feed the unemployed and poor. One sees everyone talking to their unknown neighbours. One reads a thousand placards where the life of each seamlessly blends into the great history of all.

Movement communism is the sum of all these situations and inventions. The single political problem for two centuries has been this: how do we permanently establish the inventions of  movement communism? And the sole reactionary response has always been this: “It’s impossible, dangerous even. Let us put our trust in the state.” Glory to the Tunisian and Egyptian people for reminding us of the only true political task: to face down the state with organised fidelity to   movement communism.

We do not want war, but we are not afraid. Everywhere you hear talk of the calm and peaceful nature of these huge demonstrations, and that calm is linked to the ideal of electoral democracy that has been ascribed to the movement. Note however that there were hundreds of deaths, and there still are deaths every day. In many cases, the dead were fighters and martyrs who fell while initiating and then protecting the movement. The political and symbolic places of the uprising had to be held at the cost of fierce fighting against the militias and police forces of the threatened regimes.

And who paid there with their lives, if not the young people from the poorest parts of the population? As for the “middle classes”, our hopeless Michèle Alliot-Marie said the democratic outcome of the sequence depended on them and them alone. But these middle classes remember that at the crucial moment, the survival of the uprising was guaranteed only by the wholehearted commitment of popular detachments. Defensive violence is inevitable. It continues to unfold in Tunisia, in difficult conditions, after the young provincial activists have been thrown back on their misery.

Can anyone seriously think these innumerable initiatives and cruel sacrifices had no fundamental goal beyond leading people to a “choice” between Suleiman and El Baradei, just as we do when we pathetically resign ourselves to arbitrating between Messrs Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn? Would that be the only lesson of this wondrous episode?

No, a thousand times no! The Tunisian and Egyptian people tell us this: rise up, build a public place for movement communism, defend it by all means and invent there the successive stages of action – that is the real of the politics of popular emancipation. It is not only Arab states that are against the people and, elected or otherwise, fundamentally illegitimate. Whatever their fate, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings carry a universal meaning. They prescribe new possibilities whose value is international.


For those who administer official anniversaries, the fifth of the arab spring passed with little notice (one can only ask why, perhaps?).  The politics of its pacification and domestication began early with its very designation: an “arab” spring, when so many who participated were not and by insisting on the movements’ ethnicity, endeavouring to sever them immediately from their universal significance; and a “spring” that could only be followed by an “autumn” and a “winter”, when as events, they defied linear time, the times of controlled progress and development.  The political horizon of these rebellions transcended any identity or chronology except that of peoples creating themselves, autonomously, collectively.  And it was this that had to be destroyed, by the local dictators, when their military establishment resisted the upheaval, by foreign military interventions, by religious fascists and mafias, all payed for with oil money, even if this brought on the destruction of whole societies.  The barbarism that followed, and which continues, is the final response of authority before freedom.

(One of many photographs smuggled out of syria by a former photographer of the country’s military police.  See Le Monde 16/12/2015.  See also the Human Rights Watch report on mass death and torture in syria’s prisons)

The popular rebellions that took place throughout the middle east and north africa were murderously repressed, because they threatened everyone who benefits from the rampant exploitation of the region’s natural resources and its people.

Those who took the streets were not naive or foolish, as our “after the events” expert commentators are wont to declare, barely masking their hypocritical self-interests and/or racism.  If they failed, in the moment, if what they engendered looks far worse than what was there before, it is because the violence of the response was in proportion to the force of the rebellion.  The “arab spring” threatened to undo the whole of global capitalism.  And I speak here not of programmatic declarations, or the goals of specific party organisations, but rather of what lay in embryo in the many “springs”.  As people learned of and from the freedom in the streets that became theirs, they began to learn of the obstacles that lay before them.  And freedom unleashed is the grandest of teachers.

For all of those who died, and still die, for this so human spring; for all of those for whom the events of this spring are our present, and not some tamed past; for all of those who struggle still everyday in these lands and beyond to live freely, we remember and we celebrate …

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