Egypt and an Arendtian View of Politics and Revolution

Samantha Balaton-Chrimes in openDemocracy:

The uprisings we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen over the last few weeks are moving examples of the great potential of the human condition, and of political activity that deserves our praise and admiration. The political theory of Hannah Arendt, whose dissection of totalitarianism, and prescription of popular politics as its remedy, remains one of the most profound works on the topic, and is particularly prescient to the current North African uprisings (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1973).

Arendt believed that what distinguishes humans from other animals, what constitutes the human condition, is our capacity for natality, that is, our capacity to ‘begin anew’, to ‘think what we are doing’, and to do things that have never been done before (see The Human Condition, 1958/1998). Moreover, for Arendt, when people act in concert, and in public, the only thing that can be properly defined as power is manifest. In the process of understanding domination and totalitarianism, Arendt became the great theorist of power and resistance and located these at the heart of what it means to be human (see On Violence, 1970).

In the Arab world today we are being treated to daily demonstrations of resistance of this kind, as ordinary citizens are gathering together with a common purpose, that is, to express their grievances and demands. They gather not as small groups around kitchen tables, as has gone on for decades, but en masse in the streets of Sidi Bouzid and all over Tunisia; in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo; in the streets of Amman in Jordan and Sanaa in Yemen. By gathering in such a way that their deeds and words are seen and taken seriously by each other, citizens augment their individual influence and elevate it to the status of power, a status that can never be achieved when individuals act alone. Though Arendt never got to see anything like it, the public that these citizens are appealing to goes far beyond their co-citizens, and reaches out instead – instantly and with overwhelming amounts of information from almost all perspectives – to a global public.