Monday, February 20, 2012

Maikel Nabil and Peaceful Resistance

Preliminary Notes: This essay is based on notes from a talk already given, so I am not expecting it to be fully consistent since it was intended as a brief (spoken) introduction, and still doesn't read like an essay. In the coming months I plan to expand the essay into a book chapter adding more footnotes and references on particular authors such as Thoreau, Marx, Hegel, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, etc. The translations of Maikel Nabil's fragments were substantially altered to be readable to native English speakers; any mistakes in them, are entirely my responsibility.

Maikel Nabil and Peaceful Resistance[1]

 No greater antinomy exists in the realm of politics than the common belief that violence and wars are necessary for the establishment of peace, in line with the thesis promulgated by Clausewitz in the 19th century, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This notion is partly anchored in the equation of political power with domination and violence; what is not only the result of political history but that goes back to the origin itself of the Western tradition of politics, history and philosophy.

Freedom occupied no place in the world of Greek philosophy where political freedoms were taken for the granted, and only began to concern philosophy at a time when Greek civilization – together with its celebrated political freedom – was on the verge of decline[2]. Inner freedom or what the Christian tradition calls free will, was unknown to the Greeks and it is safe to assume that it had no political relevance, since one of the basic conditions of being a free man was being free with others in the public space so that politics and the world could happen and arise in between men and from them[3].

Modern notions of sovereignty are derived from this confusion: When free will – impotent as it is to generate power or human relationships – is made tantamount to political freedom – liberty, that is – the will of the lone individual is placed atop the free association between a plurality of men and ideas, the immediate form that power and action takes, is one of non-spontaneity in which dominance and oppression is the natural consequence[4]. Therefore violence is understood as a political means par excellence to achieve political ends.

But violence by its very nature lacks the spontaneity and plurality inherent in human action. Political power grows in between men whereas violence is possessed by one man alone, and once power is seized by violent means, politics and political power is destroyed and only violence is left. Violence is measurable and calculable while power is imponderable and incalculable. Violence is objective and identical with the means it utilizes, but power comes to life only momentarily and through pure unmediated action[5]. It could be said that in a way violence is the antithesis of politics.

Surprisingly, it was in the turbulence of the violent 20th century the time in which an unprecedented social and political response arose to tackle this difficulty, in the form of organized nonviolent resistance. What this social invention proposed was not an impotence of the Christian kind – like that impotence inherent in the realization of the free will as freedom that nearly all political philosophy adopted – but the use of mass power to destroy violence as exemplified by Ghandi: He thought that the power of the masses was the only thing that could bring violence to an end[6].

The role of violence in politics could be said to be an extraordinary situation under conditions of stability, but it is imminently present during revolutions and shifts in power balance that might have revolutionary momenta but not necessarily translate into a revolution. While it has been demonstrated that short-term violence might have a positive long-term effect, it is unlikely that a form of power so critically embodied in specific groups and persons and without the openness necessary for a plurality of men to appear in public, might sustain the conditions necessary for the kind of political freedom that enables full political participation to all men without depriving them of their essential differences, and thus, turning them superfluous.

The course that the Egyptian revolution took was one of deep ambivalence between the monism of unity – unmistakably associated with the impotent will – and the human condition of plurality, expressed in tolerance: “Maybe there are many who don’t know the simple distinction between seeking unity and seeking tolerance, but we saw the core difference between the two things and how unity leads to failure while tolerance earns you strength and pushes you to succeed.[7]

The right of free association exercised by the revolutionary momentum translated into a moment of isonomy out of which no freedom could be produced, except under conditions of peaceful resistance out of which power would arise naturally as the consequence of men and women appearing for the first time in the public sphere, as their own objective personalities.

In a world of pluralities, unity is not possible except at the expense of being seduced by nostalgia or by the restoration of an ancient past in lieu of a promise of the future in which unity is destroyed by the mere fact of essential differences that have to be negotiated through plurality again.

From all the actors involved in the revolution, very few exemplified the necessity of politics through difference rather than through sovereignty as did the political prisoner Maikel Nabil, who spent ten months in jail on charges of insulting the military institution and who was turned by the military institution – a powerhouse of nostalgia and reactionary sentiments in every country of the world – into an example of how a revolutionary momentum can be syncopated into reactionary nostalgia by pinpointing a common enemy to highlight the unity of the past instead of fostering the plurality and tolerance implied in the promise of the future made by the revolutionary momentum itself.

Singled out for his pacifist views that included the call for a friendly relation with the neighboring State of Israel and an anti-militarist stance going as far as to actively promote the idea of making military service non-compulsory and atheism. While there was nothing necessarily extraordinary in his views, the practical application in the realm of politics dealt a deadly blow to a comatose authority. The case of Nabil not only exploited reactionary sentiments among the public but also exposed the background against which the notion of unity was fostered: Anti-Semitism, militarism, Islamism and the cult of the authoritarian personality, all of which apparently had been debunked by the emergence of the revolution itself and that ultimately became the stumbling block of the process itself.

During his imprisonment Nabil writes: “I’ve always believed that I was a writer and my role is to present the analysis for my readers and now after my imprisonment I became unable to participate in any other role (in spite of the high price tag I am paying because of that role). Now I don’t have anything but to advise the revolutionaries to know exactly who wants the counter-revolution? Who mobilizes it? Also, to realize that the revolution wasn’t completed yet and it is inadequate for us to be divided on ourselves while we are still in the middle of the battle…

It’s a call for tolerance, for accepting difference, overcoming the differences and the collective work under the banner of the homeland until we reach the civilian democratic state which martyrs died and victims were injured for, the missing people that disappeared and the revolutionaries that went to prisons. Our strength is our cohesion, our tolerance and our collective work. The future will decide, are we going to win or lose in completing our revolution?[8]

In the aftermath of the revolution, Nabil was vocal in criticizing the newly self-appointed military rule that had committed extensive human rights violations during and the after the revolutionary momentum. In spite of the fact that his analyses had been proven right time and again, the prejudice exercised by the counter-revolutionary mood that included not only the old authorities but also many of the new revolutionaries; the focus was solely on his views on religion and the State of Israel that while defied older notions of sovereignty, little had to do with the process of the revolution itself.

Even after egregious incidents such as virginity tests performed by military personnel on women and the Maspero massacre in which several Copts were murdered at the hand of the military authorities, little changed in the perception about Nabil even though he had issued the warning months in advance, prior to his arrest, before anyone else had and while it was a matter of pride that the leadership of the revolution had been handed out to the military institution, even though it had been proven time and again that we were dealing with a corrupt and criminal institution.

The peaceful struggle of Nabil to bring to an end his detention led him to enter an extended hunger strike that put his life at risk countless times and that lasted over one hundred days, in one of the most extreme forms of political resistance we have witnessed in the contemporary scenario.

In his own words: “The idea of the strike in general is objecting and resisting injustice, it is one of the means of non-violence struggle… Instead of resisting injustice with violence, resisting by peaceful means, one of which is the hunger strike.  The strike’s significance is that the person is ready to die but he won’t continue living under injustice…

Of course, the implicit message is that if the person on a strike does he didn’t commit suicide, but was killed, because the person on a hunger strike would have stopped had he been released from injustice, but the unjust continued injustice, the result of which is death by hunger strike; therefore the one who is considered responsible for the injustice is the killer of the person on hunger strike.[9]

The continued strike did not succeed for a long time in raising alarm calls in the international community or among the Egyptian public itself, and even though minority voices were loud in campaigning for his release, that had seemed to be not enough to put an end to the suffering he himself described: “My suffering: I can’t describe my suffering in prison… Imagine someone made a surgery without anesthesia, no matter how much he described his suffering, no one will understand his pains… I’m also like that, no matter how much I described, no one will feel how much I suffer here![10]

However, his suffering – indescribable as it might have been – never took on the pathos of a tragedy and he expressed himself with certain cheerfulness: “Until now, I didn’t eat or taste any food for 28 days. From my point of view, this is not a heroic act, but it’s the only thing I can do from my confinement to resist military rule[11]”.

In the essay where he articulates his defense of hunger strike as means of peaceful resistance he makes a case for criticizing religious authority in general when religious authorities might have condemned his means of resistance as suicide, in which he invoked the sacrifices of Christian saints, Muslim prophets and secular heroes and concludes by saying: “Unfortunately, this kind of religious thought produced a jurisprudence which grew in a climate of political tyranny, by clerics by who interpret religion for the liking of unjust authoritarianism, so they made religion a means for oppressing the people[12]”.

The same thinking strains are detected in a sharp criticism of how the means-ends relations promoted by the teleological nature of monotheistic theology in the expectation of rewards, cuts across the specter of Egyptian society:

“The ethical problem in Egypt is because the people have become used to go good in order to receive good in return. The reason for this is the philosophy of reward and punishment that exists in religions, so that people have grown used to do good only in order to receive a reward and an acquittal in the afterlife. I personally do good because it’s good and I do the righteous because it’s right, I’m not waiting for any return on anything good I do. I discover that when someone thanks me for something I did, I don’t deserve it because I wasn’t even able to do wrong. If people would become used to right because it’s right, we would get rid of the state of ethical decline existing in Egypt.

People have been used to the idea that anyone expressing an opinion must have a personal benefit in expressing that opinion, so they imagine that anyone defending Bahai rights, he is doing it because he’s Bahai, that anyone defending Christian rights, he is doing it because he’s secretly Christened, that anyone defending homosexual rights is homosexual himself but afraid to say so, that anyone defending peace receives a profit from Israel… Hey you! It’s not because you are an opportunities and wouldn’t do anything except if you levy a payment and benefit everyone who is like yourself. There are many people who have principles defending certain rights for no reward and sacrifice their lives and happiness for those rights.[13]

Hereby Maikel Nabil is – perhaps unknowingly – picking up a thread of thought that is older than the Western tradition of political thought and that goes back to Socrates himself: When Socrates said “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong” he inaugurated what we understand today as moral philosophy, however, unlike the entire Western tradition – and the failure of moral philosophy – he didn’t try to go on and prove this rationally or subscribe it to a confession of faith, that many philosophers – even secular – have professed through the ages.

The Socratic opinion was based on the assumption that if I do wrong, I still have to live with myself, and I wouldn’t like to have to live with a murderer or a slanderer, because I shouldn’t allow to contradict myself since I would no longer coincide in my appearance in the world with my inner being and therefore would be unable to live with myself. According to Socrates, whoever is not able to live with himself, cannot either live with or among others. This simple principle is the foundation of all secular worldviews and is not indebted to the Enlightenment and rationalist principles but rather precedes them all by over two thousand years.

It was but the trial of Socrates, the event that divorced political common sense from philosophical curiosity, what led Plato to turn inwards, condemn the political realm and seek avidly to escape the realm of human affairs into absolute truths, so vastly distant from the plurality of opinions and truths that were promoted by Socrates himself. This anti-political bias can be detected in the entire Western tradition of political thought, and the instrumentality with which morality and ethics are performed today, attest to the fact that this bias is more alive today than ever. What Maikel Nabil is offering in these fragments written during his time in prison is not only autonomy and freedom of the personal kind, but also an augmented sense of decency which is necessary to partake in the public realm.

It is only necessary to look carefully into his writings – simple as they might be – to make up one’s mind about the nature of his ideas and the peaceful nature of the worldview that he is advocating without naïveté or romanticism. The struggle of Maikel Nabil can be summed up with an Austrian adage popularized by Hannah Arendt: “There’s no discussion as heated as that on a book that no one has read”, which he articulates in another fragment:

“I feel it’s strange that people defend me without having read my articles. How come you defend someone without knowing what did he say? I also feel it’s strange that people attack me and curse me without having read anything I wrote. How come you attack me and criticize me without knowing what did I say? Isn’t it possible that when you read me you might be persuaded by what I say…? A nation that doesn’t read is a disgusting nation.[14]

The peaceful resistance of Nabil and his staunch criticism of militarism together with his humanist worldview – in the tradition of an old Socrates, forgotten today to the analytical impetus of public administration and policy passed as politics – gives us a stern warning about the side-effects of violence in a revolution: The centralist implication of militarism and the bureaucratic economy that supports this system, as well as hatred and intolerance, sexism, the undermining of a peaceful and democratic society. Any practice of violence, is likely to change the world, but not under the aegis of a revolutionary vision; it is only likely to change it into an even more violent world[15].

[1] This essay is dedicated to my friend E., for his love of both freedom and the life of the mind.
[2] Hannah Arendt, “The Promise of Politics”, Shocken, 2005, pp. 5
[3] Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”, in “The Portable Hannah Arendt”, Penguin, 2000, pp. 438-461
[4] Ibid
[5] Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Vol. 1, 1950-1973, Piper, 2002. Notebook 12, §5, November 1952 (translation is mine) 
[6] Ibid
[7] Maikel Nabil, Between Unity and Tolerance – A Plan to Fragment the Egyptian Revolution, 2011/06/08 
[8] Ibid
[9] Maikel Nabil, Hunger Strike isn’t Suicide, October 2011
[10] Maikel Nabil, Fragments, I’m Going Crazy in El Marg Prison – 2012/01/22
[11] Maikel Nabil, Message from Maikel Nabil, El Marg Prison, September 19 2011
[12] Maikel Nabil, Hunger Strike isn’t Suicide, October 2011
[13] Maikel Nabil, Fragments, I’m Going Crazy in El Marg Prison – 9, 2011/9/28
[14] Maikel Nabil, Fragments, I am Going Crazy in El Marg Prison – 26,  2011/12/23
[15] Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”, pp. 80 

No comments: