The spirit of the time

Hichem Karoui

With all the joy and the pride of the people who made their way to freedom through sweat, tears and blood; who are still holding their banners, chanting their slogans, sticking to their demands, sitting in places and squares transformed into huge freedom meetings, demonstrating on the streets, fighting against zealous pro-dictatorial troops and security forces sometimes with old rifles if not bare-handedly… With all their joy, their pride, their enthusiasm, and their great hopes, in all those little Arab villages, those cities that used to be, not so long ago, the realm of fear and despotism… With all their sacrifices… the cruellest catastrophe would consist in losing contact with that innocent legitimate initial flame that spurt out of their suffering: the craving for freedom.

When we see the Arab despots falling one after another, like the pieces of a domino game under the irresistible popular surge, we can only figure out the birth of a new Arab world. But after the rush of adrenaline that a dictator’s downfall — live on TV or on the streets — procures us, comes the reflection. And with the reflection, the problems left behind as a legacy of several decades of dictatorship, many of which may be framed or reduced to just one word: mindset.

Then we realise that toppling a dictator is much easier than building a democracy.

None of the countries where an uprising recently tumbled the dictator was prepared for such a day. Therefore, it is obvious that we are not witnessing a long prepared revolution according to the French and American tradition, although we have to concede that the struggles against despotism have engendered more or less an obscure spectrum of leaders and ideas, more or less scattered in the press and the political literature. But how can we ascertain that those are well the men and the ideas the Arabs just need to rise and stabilise democracy?

In Europe and America, not only an important revolutionary literature had accumulated across the years, thus paving the way to the new system, but those revolutions have been led from the beginning to the end by faithful, dedicated, well-learned, open-minded men whose mission consisted in guiding and explaining to their fellow-citizens the spirit of the time.

The post-revolutionary systems that have carried up and perpetuated that spirit (i.e. the craving for freedom), would not have been possibly conceivable without the historic contribution of such men. Progress on the path of freedom is not just a post-revolution product. Such a hypothesis could not even be contemplated to men like Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. As far as human freedom is concerned in any of today’s big democratic countries, the work for democracy has long preceded the beginning of its construction.

Montesquieu’s “Considerations on the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans” or “The Spirit of the Laws” have been published many years before the revolution of 1789. Although he was a liberal conservative, arguing in favour of a limited, balanced, constitutional government, (i.e. on the English model), the influence he exerted on the shaping of democratic institutions in the West is beyond doubt. Basically, Montesquieu’s ideas, like Voltaire’s, were reformatory rather than revolutionary. Nevertheless, both men’s ideas had a great influence in both the political revolutions of the eighteenth century: the American and the French.

My point is once an idea is in the air, it cannot be contained anymore. Call it the “spirit of the time” or the “spirit of revolution.” Call it the “craving for freedom” or “for social and political justice.” Call it “political liberty” or the “Spirit of laws.” It is always about universal values, not about sectarian or religiously inspired ideologies.

When it is there, gripping a whole nation, the rulers must either put up or give up. For “the spirit of the time” is kind of “despotic” in its own way. It does not allow another ruler to overrule the freedom of the citizen and the sovereignty of the people.

Indubitably, revolutions do not invent or create that “spirit.” It is rather the other way around. Revolutions become possible only when ideas of liberty, democracy, social-economic and political justice, grow and take shape as “the spirit of the time.” That’s why you don’t have to mind who make revolutions as long as they spurt out of the spirit of freedom. You just have to worry about so-called “revolutions” made in the dark or rode by, either ambitious military or ideologues, who will become soon your “saviours.”

When the idea of freedom takes hold in a country, even the most powerful ruling class can but serve it, though unwillingly. Suffice it to recall that it was the French aristocracy which first started the revolution. Indeed. In 1787, the Parliament opposed the monarchy’s efforts to effect needed reforms. Instead, they insisted on the calling of an Estates General which they thought the aristocracy would control. When the Estates General met in 1789, it was the people, not the aristocracy, which came into power. So, instead of balancing the state, the aristocracy had helped to overturn it.

Such an event would not have happened without the contribution of what they called “the philosophers,” who like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, have formed an “atmosphere of reasoned dissent.” Likewise, many of the men who made the American Revolution and drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been under the spell of “the spirit of the time” that seised philosophers and scientists in Europe and America.

In 1688, the English Whigs, or Liberals, deposed King James II on the grounds that he had disregarded man’s natural rights of life, liberty, and the possession of property. John Locke gave the natural rights theory classic articulation in his famous “Treatises.” No wonder that many years later, Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“Self-evident.” These are the keywords. What is self-evident in the ideologies struggling to shape the post-revolution landscape in the Arab countries?

To me, great revolutions are guided by universal values, not political ideologies craving for power. To be blind to this truth is to be blind to the essential, held by Jefferson as “self-evident,” and thus universally undeniable.

If we exchange universal values for local ideologies, let’s not wonder if we are paid in monkeys’ currency.

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