To Whom It May Concern: ‘Revolutions’ in the Arab World and University Graduations?

Disclaimer: The letter below is meant for diasporadical purposes only. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

This letter is addressed to you, yes you.

As you may have noticed, the news is saturated with coverage from Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen – what is now being dubbed ‘an Arab Revolution‘ by many. Like many observers, I have been very reluctant to refer to the unprecedented events in Tunisia and Egypt as “revolutions” and therefore I have had my own reservations against the use of the word “revolution” by friends, family and the world at large. Meanwhile, I have fruitlessly tried coming up with my own catchy imagery, symbolism or analogies that best capture the profound changes taking place especially in Tunisia and Egypt.
It was around then that I came across this statement taken from a recent speech given by Jeremy Gauntlett, a distinguished South African lawyer :

“I have often thought that the trouble with political revolution, velvet or otherwise, is that it gives rise to the same illusions as university graduation. There is the sense of attainment and finality, of a status achieved and no more to be learnt or done. I believe the converse is true. It is just a beginning.”

Ofcourse my first thought was to dissect this statement to see whether it holds true. Can political revolutions (I assume he had Tunisia and Egypt in mind) be likened to university graduations in as far as the “illusions” created are concerned?

My short answer: No. I totally disagree with my learned friend Mr. Gauntlett on the grounds that political revolutions by their very nature are made up of several key reforms taking place over a period of time and cannot be narrowed down to a succint moment in time as is the case with university graduations. We must distinguish between “political revolutions” and “political reforms”.

Indulge me, if you please.

A revolution is and can only be defined as a complete ‘turn around”, a total overhaul, a complete break with the past and the notion of ‘tabula rasa’ comes to mind. What we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt are not revolutions, they are merely people-driven violent strategies being employed to overthrow percieved dictatorial rulers. You can call them protests, uprisings, regime change but for heaven’s sake, these are not Revolutions. For a revolution to take place in any country, it must have a much wider scope and it is the culmination of many different reforms which have taken place over time and whose cumulative effect is to completely change the very core of that country. A revolution cannot be focussed around ousting one man or one regime from power so as to replace it with another. A revolution goes to the very root of the country’s economic, socio-cultural and political structure and seeks to devise a new “maniere de faire” [way of doing things] that never existed before.

The so-called “revolutions” we’ve been hearing about taking place in Egypt and Tunisia have been focussed on getting rid of certain people and their associates and in so doing, the two countries would somehow move forward. Take Egypt for instance, the centre of the protests is one man: Mr. Hosni Mubarak, who is said to have plundered his country during his 30 year rule. The question I keep wanting to ask Egyptians is this: if you do succeed in forcing Mubarak out of power, what will happen next? How will Egypt move forward? Who will govern it? Equally, the same questions can be raised about Tunisia. What measures are being put in place to ensure that future incumbents dont end up becoming other Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s of the respective North African states?

To draw on an example closer to home, let’s go back to 1992, the historic year that Section 2(A) of the constitution that made Kanu the sole legal political party was repealed. Kenyans were too focused on trying to get rid of Moi to adequately prepare for our first ever multiparty elections without realising that the repeal of section 2(A) did not change the other laws and institutional framework that still largely favoured Moi’s continued rule.

That said, the importance of ousting these dictators cannot be downplayed since it is a first step towards instituting reforms. And that’s what this is all about, REFORMS! NOT REVOLUTIONS. I stand to be corrected but I dont believe revolutions happen over night or over a week or a month. A revolution is systematic transformation and is made up of several key reforms taking place within a particular space. As for the list of reforms that culminate in a revolution, it is a pretty long one which must go beyond getting rid of individuals but must also focus on overhauling the existing institutional frameworks as well as the legal mechanisms that have facilitated these dictators to abuse public office and exploit their people.

As for graduations, Gauntlett suggests that university graduates are so naive and myopic as to consider their university graduation as their final goal. A graduation is an important ceremony for any student which marks the culmination of many years of hard work. However I would argue that there are very few graduates out there today who considered their graduations as an end in itself and that once they were awarded a degree, everything else including employment will magically fall into place. I believe that the changing realities of the world we live in have forced us to see a graduation as nothing more than a hurdle in a race rather the finish-line of that race.

And so on those two counts, I disagree with Jeremy Gauntlet’s proposition, as attractive as it sounds.

These are my few thoughts on the subject, I look forward to hearing yours.

Yours sincerely,

25 thoughts on “To Whom It May Concern: ‘Revolutions’ in the Arab World and University Graduations?

  1. When I saw the title, I thought you were going to advocate taking to the streets, and I read the letter with a frown and a lot of trepidation.

    But I’m pleasantly surprised. I think your ideas are sober, and above all, right. I hear people on Twitter clamouring for a ‘revolution like Egypt’and it chills me to my core, because I’m not ready for another 1992 or PEV.

    Ideologically, it may be different, but it’ll still end up in violence, looting, needless destruction, rape, and death. Egypt started out peaceful and inspiring, but now it’s just f*cking scary.

    There has to be some other way of having a real revolution, the type you describe here, the type that changes things all the way instead of just getting leaders on a plane and killing innocent civilians or policemen that are simply following orders.

    Sadly, I don’t know what that ‘other way’ is, and I think people are more attracted to the immediate impact of violent reform. People are buoyed by the perceived action and the apparent progress. They forget the ‘what next’ part of the equation, because that part is never in the news.

    • the real illusion seems to be that revolutions have overnight… they take time, several years and even decades. Using violence to overthrow a regime will only reverse years and years of tyranny if the fundamental laws and institutions that created that tyrannt are done away and totally replaced.

  2. Great post NV.

    Now, since 1992, the citizens of this country have known no “other way” of getting the attention of the powers that be. In 1992, most of us here were in class reciting multiplication tables, while our folks took to the streets, Rev. Njoya getting his nuts clobbered in 97. Now here we are, all grown up, learned, but still oppressed. Even with all our knowledge, we cannot put our heads together and create this “other way” or as NV puts it “a much wider scope culminating into many different reforms.”

    It seems the best we can do is always caution each other against revolutionary ideas and pour water on the slightest of suggestions as that of #KenyaFeb28. Please note, some of these ideas do not emanate from our well funded Civil Society Groups but from your ordinary geek, who was brushing his teeth this morning, looking into the mirror and thinking how fucked up this country is. How long will we wait for the genius Civil Society minds to show us how it’s done? To shine the much needed light on the “other way” so that we may walk our talk?

    Who will give us an idea of how to come up with an”other way” if not you? And if not now, then when?

    • thanks Nittzsah.

      relying on the “genius Civil society” is futile these days. Borrowing a leaf from our Northern neighbours, stirring up change in our country must come from the people themselves.

      I believe this “other way” we seek must be anchored in the new Constitution as it lays down a sound foundation for the way forward.

  3. Wait, how did you get a hold of my old graduation photo and then proceed to photo-shop Obama’s head?

    Jokes aside, this is a very insightful piece. I’m glad you raised the 1992 reforms in Kenya and certainly we all remember the first Saba Saba massacre. Many years later we now have a new constitution, but we still lack the political maturity as a people to realise that promulgating it was just the beginning and that things would only change in this country if we all do our part to live up to the spirit and letter of this constitution.

    It is simply inaccurate to describe the commencement of constitutionalism whether here in Kenya or in South Africa way back in 1994 as political revolutions. They are reforms, crucial reforms but only the beginning of a revolution which may or may not take place depending on its implementation.

  4. One of us is missing the point and it’s either you or, as of late, it’s me. Either way, i’m across the floor from you because you’ve confused reform with revolution. The norm becomes the definition and the norm was set by the french revolution, che guevarra’s revolucion, etc. Examples of reforms are of the cabinet reshuffle kind. Next, you skim over what’s happening in tunisia and egypt et al, giving a largely uninformed view of things. Think about it, things became so bad in tunisia a seventeen year old burned himself ALIVE. When we are able to grasp that, kenyans shall and will stand join the arabs and the brit students in the fight essentially against old, wealthy and most importantly greedy leaders we have. Who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present, controls the past.

      • “Freedom is the freedom to say that one plus one equals two, if that is given all else follows.”

        PS: I apologize for the slight incoherency in my above comment, mobile blogging and all that :-/

    • I’m glad you’ve mentioned the French Revolution, which I am very familiar with. The change from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional republic certainly didnt happen overnight. In fact it took decades to realise.

      So clearly we cannot compare what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia to that.

      My argument is simply this: revolutions are the end-result of revolts, reforms and regime changes.
      A revolution earns its name as a result of a sequence of events and transformations that culminate in bringing forth a totally new country.
      By that definition, what you’ve referred to such as a teen setting himself on fire, or the Tunisian president being removed from power cannot be called a revolution.

      The revolution comes when the laws and institutions that allow such men to plunder their countries are done away with and a new order is put in place.

      • The fight for a revolution takes time but the moment of revolution is that defining moment of transition from one definition to another. An example would be the moment an Islamic convert says the Shahada, before he says it, he isn’t regarded a Muslim and after he says it he is regarded a Muslim although all he’s done is taken up the definition and title of a Muslim and not yet fulfilled the rest of the five pillars of Islam but has pledged to do… i.e the reforms.

        Everything else is waffle. Sitting here and typing about revolution, reform etc is for nought but peace of mind thinking we’ve done our share of fighting impunity, battling class-ism, speaking for the IDP’s. Egyptians are sleeping in Tahrir Square every night, getting attacked by paid thugs (dubbed in the media as pro-Mubarak supporters) as the army stands there watching on. That my friend cannot be waved away by a few words, much less your opinion of what’s going on there.

        Until that other time…viva la revolucion!

  5. First up I think NV has encountered alot of democracy in his life 🙂 *making a peace sign*

    Kindly allow me to be slightly pretentious and play around with words. Revolt -vs- Revolution. A revolt is a violent action against authority. The outcome tends to be smaller in scope i.e. eviction of a person/government from office. I think Gauntlett probably had ‘revolt’ in mind when he was giving his speech… A revolution on the other hand is much larger in scope and consequences. I partly agree with NV that, for a country to be said to be undergoing a revolution, the outcome should be a turn around beginning at the core of its systems. My take, however, is that what starts as a revolt may eventually result in a revolution. What is happening in Egypt and Tunisia (which I must admit I am not really following) is a revolt for now. BUT, and I know it’s cliche, only time will tell.

    Peaceful negotiated reforms do lead to revolutions… and they’re probably the right way to go about it. I just don’t think it’s the ONLY way.

    As for graduation… I blame it on the school teacher’s mantra: If you work hard you’ll get to university, if you graduate from university you’ll get a good job, if you get a good job MAISHA BOMBA! You’d be surprised how many people still graduate with these words ringing in their ears. If you think about it from that point of view Mr. Gauntlett has a point: The uninformed graduates as compared to those engaged in a revolt.


    P.S: I enjoy the posts & comments on this blog. You all show me just how ignorant I am!

  6. I agree with you. What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt is just but an uprising against a deadly, myopic and gerontocratic political edifice. It will take take time for the changes to be felt, but in a way……….. this is just the beginning.

  7. Wow, I love like-minded people. Makes me feel like I’m less insane. Anyhoo, agreed on the revolution er lack of. And with the now pro Mubarak protests ongoing everything has gone very ugly. Reeks of PEV.
    The base though is the one that’s the battle to start and I was told we all need personal ideologies so what’s yours? (via @Nittzsah)

  8. I agree that what is/has taken place is not a revolution, for reasons you have advanced. Points of disagreement;

    1. My understanding of revolution is that they happen quickly o…therwise if its a process, its an “evolution”, this is not to say that the anger/resentment/plan for change has not been a long time brewing. Take the French revolution, the period of revolution is when they stormed the Bastille and Gilloutined the King and Marie, the process after I would call setting up/building the republic.
    2. I dont know about Kenya, but the kind of graduation parties that people have here, I think many people believe that it is the end, that they have finally arrived, of course a few months in the ranks of the unemployed rids them of any illusions.

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  10. We first need to discuss seriously what it is that we need to change. As a nation. And what the alternative should be and how it will be better. Without unity of thought, a revolution is as good as dead.

    And I concur, a clamor for regime change does not constitute a revolution. In Kenya, 2002 was because we were given a voice we never had before. Now we need to use that to bring real change.

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  12. Hey NV,

    Your post got me thinking for quite a while, thanks for the exercise…Here’s a tentative response.

    Firstly, I agree with Nyam to an extent: not all revolts constitute revolutions but revolutions usually start with popular uprisings/protests.

    You describe a revolution as ‘a total overhaul, a complete break with the past’-which I agree with. But you then add that one can only speak of a revolution when ‘many different reforms have taken place over time’ and that a revolution ‘cannot be focussed around ousting one man or one regime from power so as to replace it with another.’-that’s where I disagree strongly.

    Revolutions may vary in scope and duration but to me a political revolution is very much about doing away with one regime and replacing it with another. It occurs when a constituted authority is challenged by the people under its sway. I exclude riots and other minor protests targeted at specific political acts or policies, as opposed to the very core of a political regime.

    If a revolution is successful it is followed by the fall of the old regime and the establishment of a new one which is more in line with popular aspirations and demands.

    Take the classic example of the French revolution. When we refer to it we mean the overthrow of the monarchy by the people. We’re not referring to successive reforms that led to the overthrow of the monarchy. We have in mind 1789, the storming of the Bastille and the political upheaval that followed the sustained insurrections from masses on the street.

    The transformation that followed certainly did not happen overnight. There was a pre-revolution (which I think also existed in Egypt since the conflict was brooding for a decade) and a transition that led to a republic. But in my mind, a revolution occurs when the people express a common, irrepressible, desire to overthrow power. And I think that this is exactly what is happening in Egypt.

    Maybe it’s a little early to label the Egyptian uprisings as ‘revolution’ since Mubarak is clinging to power. But I think that if the people carry on their protests and succeed in ousting Mubarak AND his regime, then it will be a revolution. Granted, Mubarak’s regime has to be replaced with a viable democracy. From what I hear, there is a rising young, educated population in Egypt who has an idea as to who they want to see in a transitional government. El Baradei seems to be the most popular candidate. As for the majority of the people, it seems legitimate that all they want is to oust a president who is blatantly pludering their country, but that they do not know precisely what they’d like to see in his place. In this regard, I also think the UN could play a role in assisting with the transfer of power to the opposition. But that’s a different matter.

    Your definition of a revolution seems to focus on the other end of the spectrum, the end result, which I would define as ‘reform’.

    Maybe we’re just fiddling with words and became entangled in semantics, but I’m glad you turned that status update into a political forum 🙂

    PS: I just thought the comparison with university graduation and its illusions was timely and I agree with you on that count. We’re even 😉


  13. In short, i think a revolution is the beginning of a process and you think it’s the end of that process. And I’m not sure what I think anymore. Good night.

    • Salut Alphée!

      A regime change, for me, is just that – a regime change.
      A revolution is more fundamental in its nature. I am willing to concede that revolutions may vary in duration but as far as the scope is concerned, there can be no compromise.
      ‘Revolution’ connotes a complete change of direction, if you were to compare it etymologically to ‘evolution’. This change of direction happens as a result of uprisings, revolts, protests, rebellions, revolts and such intervening events.
      This may just be a semantic debate over words, but thanks for your generous and enlightening contribution.
      I hope you’ll be encouraged to visit the blog more often 😉

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