Home > development > Revolutionary legitimacy vs. electoral legitimacy

Revolutionary legitimacy vs. electoral legitimacy

In the aftermath of Arabic popular uprising, the question of revolutionary legitimacy has emerged as the expression of a united –or quasi-united-popular will. Later, this notion has been forgotten and replaced by legal mechanisms such elections and numerous transitional laws and constitutional declarations. Global and regional anxiety of the concept of revolution in the so-called “MENA” sensitive region, especially since the Iranian revolution still causes severe headache. 

In Tunisia, the 2011 elected government and national constitutional assembly both have replaced the High Commission for the Realisation of Revolution Objectives, Political Reforms and Democratic Transition  which has been suspended since. Consequently, this political progress has somehow left the revolution without a guard. The ending of the High Commission was a strategic mistake that Tunisians suffer from till today. Popular leagues of the protection of the revolution have been suddenly transformed into extremist groups; recently an ambiguous law for the protection of the revolution has been adopted. The recent second revolution in Egypt would not occur if there were revolutionary political mechanisms that protect the revolution’s goals. The National Salvation Front has been immediately charged with managing the revolution process in the first weeks after the Romanian Revolution of 1989.

This gap is may be caused by the absence of a shared definition of revolutionary legitimacy. Few publicists who wrote about revolutionary right, however, jurists and sociologists agree that revolutions never obey constitutions. French Constitutional law Professor Olivier Beaud argues that constitutional process is a revolutionary process which is the illegal breach of the constitutional order to form a new constitution. Carl Schmitt insisted that the constituent power of the people could not be effectively represented and reduced to any specific forms or procedures. We conclude that revolution derives its legitimacy from itself and not from any positive law. The power of the people’s will is much superior of any legal power during revolution process.

In the course of political transitions, revolutionary legitimacy prevails, that means juridical or constitutional statements are non-binding if contrasted with the validity of the revolution which owes its success to the realization of its objectives. Revolution’s legitimacy defined by popular consensus or near consensus. Policy and legal decisions are therefore illegal and illegitimate when they don’t reflect the popular – full or half unanimity. Though, this legitimacy is not eternal, it ends by the realization of the revolution raison d’être. Does elections alone are satisfactory for democratization? We argue that democracy is far beyond ballot boxes, at least in revolutionary episodes.

On revolution:

Revolution is defined by political scientists as a highly variable phenomenon. It can occur to various degrees along various dimensions. These include the political, international, economic, cultural, ethnic, and gender dimensions. Consequently, revolutions are ambiguous and constantly transmuting[1]. Many scholars have been busy differentiating revolution from rebellion, revolt and coups, using criteria such as social goals, number of participants, social class and so forth[2]. The 1969 Ballentine’s Law Dictionary defines a revolution as follows: “A sudden, radical and fundamental change in the government or political system, usually effected with violence or at least some acts of violence, sometimes after prolonged struggle between armed forces, and prompted ordinarily by internal conditions oppressive to the people. The overthrow of an established government, generally accompanied by far-reaching social changes.”

From a Legal perspective, the first concern of the Revolution is to make a transfer of sovereignty. According to Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, as the fundamental document of the 1789 French Revolution: “The principle of all sovereignty rests essentially in the nation. No body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from the nation. Abraham Lincoln during his first inaugural address during the American Civil war said that if the people of the United States were dissatisfied with the government it was their revolutionary right to overthrow it at any time. However, Egypt and Tunisia face today a vast gap in different social groups’ understandings of who “the people”. In revolutionary era, political leaders are accountable to the groups of people who originated the revolution. In the case of the Arab spring, they are the non-ideologically motivated youth. The Tunisian first rebels aren’t the Islamic nor the leftists, they are the average job seekers, mostly secular and oppressed citizens.

 On democracy:

Dr Joel Horowitz has described Democracy as “an extremely volatile form of government, particularly in societies in which it is not deeply rooted enough to overcome crisis”[3]. While The Arab regions suffer from weaknesses of literature on democratization, one need to take lessons from outside experiences such in Latin America or East Europe. Anthony Giddens defines democracy in the following words: “it exists where you have a multiparty system with political parties competing with one another, free and non-corrupt voting procedures to elect political leaders, and an effective legal framework of civil liberties or human rights that underlie the mechanisms of voting processes”.

Democracy goes well beyond free and competitive elections to issues of social and economic equality in a way that all citizens have an equal effective participation in making political decisions[4]. The very meaning of democracy and democratic liberties in today’s world, did not come out of the ballot box, but were born and evolved on the street. Egypt and Tunisia are good examples. Awareness of the past is critical as current analysis concentrate on trends and events of the past quarter century. Ibn Khaldoun, the Tunisian-born historiographer, was correct when he had once said: “At first glance History is no more than news (and events) but thoroughly it is sight and investigation”[5].

The Declaration of Independence of 1776 stipulated that governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. Despite the fact they reached power through the ballot box, hundreds of “democratically elected’’ governments across the globe, including the highest democratic Western States have conducted undemocratic practices.

Elections are deemed to be one step to a functional democracy and they solely aren’t the safeguards of democracy which is a process in constant movement. In democratization process, it’s obvious that casting a ballot is the first step in reaching democracy. Democracy gives political power to the “oppressed” classes, who constitute the large majority of society’s population. Outside powers are often against democracy in “strategically important” allies. Despite its rhetoric to the contrary, for example, the US government frequently used its power to subvert democracy throughout the world: Iraq, Iran, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, among others. Even today, the US strongly supports Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy.

Under Juan Perón, for example, the Argentine working class was a strong supporter of what many have described as a fascist, populist dictatorship. Democracy is the rule of the people’s will, whose essence is collective authenticity; this quality cannot be achieved by mere aggregation of private individuals’ will, the attribute of elections in liberal democracies[6]. Schmitt’s theory of constituent power provides the basis for a more thoroughly democratic conception of revolutions. For example, Andreas Kalyvas has argued that “phenomena such as civil disobedience, irregular and informal movements, insurgencies, and revolutionary upheavals retain all their dignity and significance even if they directly challenge the existing constitutional structure of power[7].

Revolution is somehow similar to a deal: we have overthrown an oppressive regime in exchange we want jobs, liberty and dignity. If the elected rulers do not fulfill those demands, the government would simply become illegitimate and it’s their right to take it down.

That’s why there is a belief that a healthy democratic system requires an active participation of its citizens and without this the legitimacy of its democracy is undermined. It’s the State accountability to exercise due-diligence and good governance in order to reign. From the beginning of the Arab revolutions, the western Ignorance has been uncovered in many ways. Weak policy and political analysis of issues at stake seem to be very weak in the North African region, long-time considered not a strategic ally to the USA not Russia or Canada.

Nowadays, diplomatic, international relations and foreign policies are to be re-constructed. From the ongoing Arab revolutions, we have learned how bad US foreign policies are. They prefer stability at the expense of democratic values, human rights and self-determination of people – those same values that Americans had fought for through revolutionary wars decades ago. According to the UN charter, state members of the U.N. have the obligation to promote full employment, conditions of economic and social progress, solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all[8]. Legal and diplomatic tools available to the international community to respond to emerging conflicts in the region are increasingly giving the impression that they are outdated and ill-suited to contemporary realities.


[1] Isaac Kraminick, Reflections on Revolution: Definition and Explanation in Recent Scholarship

History and Theory, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1972), pp. 26-63, Wiley

[2] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Penguin Group USA, 1965

[3] Joel Horowitz, Argentina’s Radical Party and Popular Mobilization, 1916–1930, Penn State University Press, 2008.

[5] Al-Muqadima, http://bit.ly/16EzoET

[6] M. Rosenfeld, (ed.), Constitutionalism, Identity, Difference, and Legitimacy: Theoretical

Perspectives, Durham-London, 1994, pp.140-170.

[7] Denver law review., p 4

[8] Article 55, 56 of the UN Charter.

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