Why the peaceful nature of the 2011 Arab uprising was revolutionary

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:24


pholosophy-of-non-violence.jpgReview of Chibli Mallat, Philosophy of Nonviolence. Revolution, Constitutionalism, and Justice beyond the Middle East, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 2015


Chibli Mallat is not just a particularly prolific author and a globe-trotter busy cultivating his constitutional-law studies in America, Europe and the Middle East: he is also an activist and a politician who has stood for election as president of the Lebanese Republic.


His Philosophy of Nonviolence is a highly cultured essay on Middle Eastern and comparative constitutional law that analyses the political phenomena driving the Arab Spring, in particular, although he wisely places them within a much broader context. It is also, ultimately, the work of a visionary who is prophesying a new era for developing political co-existence in the Middle East.


The book dwells on this last aspect, in particular. It would have been difficult to do otherwise for the man who founded the NGO Right to Nonviolence, a transnational network that monitors the development of democracy in the Arab countries and embraces human rights and the way of non-violence, above all. And it is precisely this aspect of the work that deserves interest and critical reflection.


Mallat focuses his attention on a point deserving profound consideration: the largely non-violent nature of the mass protests that, primarily from the end of 2010 onwards but also earlier, involved the area stretching from Morocco to Oman. He shows the political profile of this peaceful, transnational movement recently preceded by the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, in 2005-2006, and the Iranian Green Movement a few years later. The choice not to carry out an armed insurrection, notes the author, was an intentional political choice carrying very precise connotations.


In the first place, it is a transversally mobilizing factor that brings together social forces that would otherwise be destined to remain in the background – women, first and foremost. In the second place, non-violence does not have a sectarian dimension. In the third place, it is not an anarchic force but one based on discipline that wants to achieve a constructive political result, rather than disorder or simply rebellion, still less tragedy.


For Mallat, non-violence is not some utopian movement. It consists, rather, in a given moment of time, although this can last far longer than violent movements do and is, for this reason, less easily identifiable. It then leaves room for more explicitly constructive phases, namely, the constituent phase, during which a genuine constitutional text is drawn up, and then the justice phase, during which those who governed autocratically earlier are put on trial (and convicted, presumably), since “dictatorship is a crime against humanity.”


Mallat explicitly constructs an alternative philosophy of political history to the Hegelian one. He invites the reader to read recent history as the unveiling of a Middle Eastern soul reaching towards full political maturity: one that, whilst it rejects violence on the streets as the way to topple a regime, accepts the lawful violence of a new, democratically-established legal order – an order that is not truly complete if it has not done justice vis-à-vis the sufferings caused by previous regimes.


One can be grateful to Mallat both for his insightful observations and for his challenging statements. He has advanced a meticulous proposal for abandoning the logic in which transitional moments are normally read, placed as they are in a sort of “grey zone” that alternatively legitimates the violence perpetrated by revolutionaries, if they are successful and topple the regime, or the repression resorted to by regimes, if they manage to hold on to power. Thus he offers a way out of the Kantian and Hegelian idea of revolution being lawful if it succeeds and unlawful if it fails.


Does his attempt succeed? The book was published in 2015 and, in many respects, much of what Mallat writes seems like a dream that ended the same way as all the others: shattered in many areas of the Middle East by violence and reprisals. That does not greatly detract from his work, however. The book seems to have captured the spirit and aim of many of the instances of unrest that the world has witnessed, whatever their concrete outcome may have been.