Revolutions are above the law

The concept of revolutionary legitimacy became predominant in the early days of Arab revolutions, reflecting a unified popular will to bring down existing regimes, and their constitutions.

Even though the idea of revolutionary legitimacy was generally accepted at the beginning of Egypt's uprising, it was forgotten later on and replaced with the usual legal mechanisms, such as the Constitutional Declaration, and the authority of the judiciary, which remained intact after the revolution.

The decline of the concept of revolutionary legitimacy during the transition and the absence of an agreed-upon mechanism to enforce it have led to the current state of confusion and empowered non-revolutionary actors to take control of the political scene.

If revolutionary legitimacy had governed the interim period, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would not have been able to issue a supplement to the Constitutional Declaration to curtail the powers of elected institutions, nor would the Supreme Constitutional Court have dissolved a Parliament elected in a vote that saw the highest level of turnout in the history of Egypt, creating an immense legislative vacuum at a critical stage of the revolution.

This may be attributed to the ambiguity of the concept of revolutionary legitimacy and the ease of reverting to existing judicial channels. These two factors have led to a lack of agreement on mechanisms to implement the concept of revolutionary legitimacy. Now it seems necessary to have such mechanisms in place.

I therefore propose some basics for understanding this concept as well as some possible execution mechanisms.

Historically, no revolution has ever obeyed the constitution. Revolutionaries are by nature against the constitution and the law. A revolution bestows legitimacy on its own and does not derive it from any existing law. Thus, a revolution is a supra-constitutional and supra-legal state that does not submit to the rulings of the judiciary.

The constitution of the collapsed regime automatically falls without the need for further procedure to deactivate it so long as the revolution receives popular consensus. (This is what happened in Egypt after Mubarak stepped down. Everyone, including the SCAF, agreed that the existing 1971 Constitution be suspended.). The constitution is not made to fall by procedures that it dictates, but by an act which comes from outside its framework — namely, the act of revolution.

During a transitional period, the concept of revolutionary legitimacy reigns, which means that judicial rulings and the Constitutional Declaration imposed by those in power are non-binding and illegitimate if they contradict revolutionary legitimacy.

The main objective of revolutionary legitimacy is to make the revolution succeed. While achieving this goal may require an offensive against the status quo at the peak of the revolution, a shift to a defensive tactic is required during the transitional period when the goal is no longer to bring down the regime but to prevent remnants of the former regime from patching it up again.

It is worth noting that revolutionary legitimacy draws on popular consensus and therefore any initiative or decision which does not receive that consensus is stripped of said legitimacy.

It can be concluded that there are several mechanisms for the implementation of revolutionary legitimacy, but the mechanism to be chosen should be appropriate for the moment. For example, the dissolved People's Assembly may convene anywhere and set a definition for revolutionary legitimacy. It can state that any decision that a majority of its members — say 80 percent — agree on has revolutionary legitimacy. A decision to void the Supreme Constitutional Court can therefore be made if it has the consensus of 80 percent of the MPs. If it wishes, it can also decide to strip the SCAF of all of its powers, again drawing on the revolutionary legitimacy to formulate its decisions.

Thus, the concept of revolutionary legitimacy gains legitimacy from consensus and unified will and not from the law. And this is not just on the theoretical level. Judging by the path taken by the revolution at critical points, it can be gleaned that the ruling power, particularly the SCAF, has made concessions at every confrontation where it encountered stiff and unified resistance.

Revolutionary legitimacy is a temporary and exceptional concept that expires with the end of the revolutionary period or the transition because it expresses an extraordinary state of popular unity. After all, any nation does not live in eternal unity, for this type of unity is only the goal of fascist regimes and it goes against the nature of an ever-changing society.

Therefore, when we talk about revolutionary legitimacy while we are living a revolution we should remember that the nation eventually wants to lead a normal life and not a continuing state of revolt.

Mohammed Bamyeh is a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh

This article was originally published in Arabic on Jadaliyya and was translated by Dina Zafer.

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