The Days of Anger: Humiliation, Fear and Dignity in the Middle East

Some will claim that the true, structural causes for these Arab revolts reside in the rising food prices or other objective economic factors. Others will claim it is the new social media. Others again will hail the rising multitude foretold in the West, happening in the Middle East. Who can prove them wrong? But that is not what the street interviewees and commentators tell us: they speak of Anger, of Pride, of Humiliation and Dignity.

In his famous, infamous book on The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama was harking back to Plato and Hegel to stress how important these affects are in politics. They are sui generis: political moral affects of their own. Egotism and Desire are not the sole factors that determine human behaviour (as both liberal and Marxist ‘paneconomic’ theories have it). His major example is that it is not the economy that played a major role in the movement of Havel and his lot that brought down the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Thymos, meaning: feeling for justice, honour, anger, pride, dignity, etc. has been a determining factor from the onset.

The self burning of the Tunisian youngster was a thymotic gesture par excellence. One of the highest thinkable forms of it: total defiance, not only for dead, but even for the most painful and cruel of death. A quote from the web: Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, living in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, had a university degree but no work. To earn some money he took to selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence. When the authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce, he was so angry that he set himself on fire.” (our emphasis).

This total defiance out of humiliation turning into anger, and anger turning into dignity and defiance has proved contagious: “Rioting followed and security forces sealed off the town. On Wednesday [January 12th], another jobless young man in Sidi Bouzid climbed an electricity pole, shouted “no for misery, no for unemployment”, then touched the wires and electrocuted himself. Tunisia’s president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has fled his country after weeks of mass protests culminated in a victory for people power over one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes.”

The jasmine revolution in a nutshell. Mohamed Bouazizi was not a calculating egotistic, economical being, measuring his profit. He just went for it. It is not by incident, that this most powerful of gestures of defiance and indignation has set off a wave of anger that floods the Arab world.

Anger has had some bad press lately in our culture. So much so that we tend to dismiss it. And yet it is this affect that has given its name to these appeals to revolt: ‘Days of Anger’. The Days of Anger have been succeeding one another since January: from Tunisia to Iraq, from Egypt to Yemen, from Oman and Bahrain to Libya to Syria. Was it just a cheap appealing slogan to mobilize? No. It contains a profound truth (philosophical, psychological, political or even psychopolitical as Sloterdijk would call it): he (or she) who is angry has lost all fear.

Anger can be a door to freedom. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to loose. Janis Joplin’s catch phrase explains it all. Human dignity resides in freedom. Therefore he who is free has nothing to lose, he who has nothing to lose is free. Even if anger is not a popular affect in our culture, the philosophical truth is that freedom lies in human nature, that it is in the human nature to desire not only for food and riches, but also for recognition, for honour, and pride. When this longing for dignity and recognition is not met, entire peoples can get angry. And lose fear.

He who loses fear, regains his pride and honour. He who regains his pride and honour has nothing to lose but his freedom. He will defend it with his life if must be. This sequence explains why the words of anger, pride, honour were not out of the air in street interviews and commentaries, and even in slogans: “Here we are, Egyptians, proud again!” read a slogan on Tahrir square quoted on Al Jazeera, on February, 10th at 7 pm local Belgian time. I noted it down for this article.

Why is it so touching, this slogan? Because it touches a deep string in all of us. Freedom is the base of dignity. A slave can be rich and healthy and well (mostly not, mind you), but has no dignity, cannot be proud. For he is not free. Now the people feel sovereign, free to speak and act. This is the biggest empowerment one can get. No bullets will stop this, even airstrikes can’t stop this.

Peter Sloterdijk’s accusations in his book Zorn und Zeit (Anger and Time) against what he calls ‘Anger Big Banks’ is convincing in his case studies, quite devastating in fact: his cases being the church and communism – but wrong in its premises and conclusions. By taking up Fukuyama’s theme and linking it to Nietzchean resentment, he casts an almost solely negative light on anger. The Days of Anger, from Tunisia to Syria, from Egypt to Libya to Yemen, etc. prove him wrong. Anger can be a very positive force in history as the days of anger in the Arab world prove.

A witness from Cairo on February 18th on Skype: “The repression is massive, and will only rise by the days … scary. This era is mad. Full of mixed hope and anxiety, I have this unbreakable smile with eyes filled with tears at times.” Libya is a matter of concern. But whatever Khadafy does, or any other leader in the Middle East for that matter, as somebody said from Tripoli on Al Jazeera (on February 23th): “The wall of fear has fallen, the spring of Arab youth has began.”

And we haven’t seen the end of this. Even China is weary and cracking down on activists – there it is ‘jasmine’ that has been the key word: they censured the word jasmine on the internet – can you imagine? Can you imagine a more innocent word? I can understand (not agree) that authorities censure words like porn, bomb, terrorism, but Yasmine. I mean. I think it is the practical joke of the year. World historically ridiculous. But indeed, the Chinese call their days of anger and protest “jasmine walks”. And indeed: the authorities are wetting their pants. They are scared like hell for this fertile spring breeze blowing from the Mediterranean. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Everywhere Tahrir Square!

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.