Politics: action in concert with others

On a recent posting on the New York Times’ Room for Debate, Bahey eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, wrote the following: “The Tunisian revolution and the continuing Egyptian demonstrations show that authoritarian regimes don’t provide stability. By failing to respond to the basic needs of their people, such governments create an environment for instability, religious extremism and terrorism.” His words echo sentiments Hannah Arendt expressed in her monumental work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.

Although she was talking about a distinctive form of rulership—totalitarianism, not an authoritarian regime like the Mubarak government or the toppled rulers in Tunisia—her comments remain germane to the current situation. “[T]he paradox of totalitarianism in power,” she wrote, “is that the possession of all instruments of governmental power and violence in one country is not an unmixed blessing for a totalitarian movement. Its disregard for facts…becomes steadily more difficult to maintain…every bit of factual information that leaks through the iron curtain, set up against the ever-threatening flood of reality from the other non-totalitarian side, is a greater menace to totalitarian domination than counterpropaganda has been to totalitarian movements.” (p. 510).

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It is this “ever-threatening flood of reality” challenging the fabricated “reality” of authoritarian that makes highly unstable a regime that otherwise appears to be monolithic. In this age of technology-enabled social networking, vast numbers of protesters, calling for economic and political transformation after decades of dictatorial rule, have spilled into the streets in the region, mobilized into action by internet notifications, a threatening flood of reality indeed. They have been met, in Egypt, not only with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets; the day ended with the President ordering the police to be backed up by the military, something reported not to have been done since 1986. But, equally worrying, all internet and most cell phone service has also been cut.

Yet, as Arendt noted, “even a single individual can be absolutely and reliably dominated only under global totalitarian conditions.” Which is why it remains imperative that those who do have access to the means of communication continue to monitor, critically analyze and discuss the volatile situation in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, unimpeded by ideologically motivated fears or narrowly nationalistic interests.

Although complaints have been simmering for years in the region, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen is, as others have pointed out, the spontaneity with which these actions have been taken and without much identifiable leaders, as yet. Spontaneity, in Arendt’s view, is the essence of politics. The unnerving thing about spontaneous political action that Arendt underscored is that its course can neither be predicted nor fully controlled. But that is what makes politics politics and prevents it from devolving into some form socio-technical engineering.

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