WHEN EGYPTIANS entered the streets, Barack Obama began to flirt with a shift in a long-standing American policy, before events overtook him and forced his hand.
Nearly two years ago, revolts had broken out after a stolen election in Iran, but Obama didn’t claim “human rights” were being violated. Instead, he said that while the United States could not interfere, it “bore witness” to the Iranian insurgents and the repression they might face.
In fact, as several observers have noted, all through his presidency Obama had soft-pedaled the common American notion that U.S. interests and humanity’s aspirations coincide. And no wonder, given the global consensus that Obama’s predecessor had confused the two, especially after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction led George W. Bush to prioritize the goal of democracy and the “freedom agenda” as a rationale for war.
But when it came to Egypt, Obama turned the page. He clearly announced: “The universal rights of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations must be met.”
Because he came to link himself with a thirty-year wave of international human rights, Obama’s message—like the Tunisian, Egyptian, and now Libyan events themselves—has so far been interpreted in ways that fit recent historical parallels. Neoconservatives have already begun to claim that Bush was right; the Middle Eastern earthquake, they say, vindicates their view that democracy defined and shepherded by the West, if necessary at gunpoint, is how the end of history comes about. Liberals respond that it only shows the need for a multilateral and internationalist renaissance of human rights, after Bush’s betrayal of the idea.
But we should beware of reducing the Middle Eastern revolution to local foreign policy spats—and therefore to our human rights. To find a parallel for what we see today, we have to go further back, to well before international human rights had been invented as a foreign policy conundrum.
In fact, the Middle Eastern revolution seems to be most of all about an earlier idea that we have lost the ability to talk about—what used to be called the “rights of man,” not our more recent notion of human rights, along with the activities and institutions Westerners have devised around it.
From their first deployment in the French Revolution through the century of liberal nationalism that climaxed and seemingly disappeared in twentieth-century decolonization, the rights of man were the slogan of revolutionaries. The votaries of the rights of man threw off grizzled despots and sclerotic bureaucracies in the name of humanity and nationality together. And they faced the problem of constituting the “people” or “nation” that was now said to rule instead.
Unlike our human rights, the rights of man were not primarily about sympathy and philanthropy from outside. They were not about a “freedom agenda” led by somebody else’s country. And least of all were these rights supposed to be imagined and realized by the very powers that had, until yesterday, supported the despotism the people had to unite to overthrow. As wonderful as it is that Obama ended up betting right, the Egyptians were there first, and mattered far more.
Meanwhile, the organized international human rights movements of the world were marginal to what happened in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. It is surely not negligible that they took up the valuable activity of reporting on violence by the government when a crackdown threatened or occurred. But the human rights movement neither formulated the aim of revolution nor got it done. In the forty years of the human rights movement, no NGO has ever advocated revolution. Yet that is what is happening before our eyes.
In the parlor game of seeing historical parallels, 1789 and 1989 have gotten the most attention. To my mind, 1848 makes more sense, for this moment of revolution has neither taken place in a single epicenter nor overthrown a single empire. The rights of man were absolutely central to 1848, informing the polycentric liberation in which different peoples attempted to emancipate themselves. There was internationalism too, but mainly in that plural and modular sense. Copying, not monitoring, is what rights-based internationalism meant in the European springtime of nations, and what it means across the Middle East today. Liberal solidarity certainly marked that extraordinary year, but without the newer overlay of an international human rights movement. If no such movement was necessary for the revolutions themselves, the same is true of the kind of cross-border solidarity of the era.
Of course, no one knows exactly whether “rights talk” is prominent in Middle Eastern squares. But it seems certain that if 2011 is a blast from the earlier past, it is because its rights have not been those claimed by helpful observers but ones arrogated by founding participants.
Above all, the rights of man were different than our human rights because, deployed for the sake of a new founding, they were synonymous with the search for a new beginning in politics. As theorists of revolution like Hannah Arendt have always insisted, it is this attempt to begin—both the first step of liberation and the next step of foundation—that counts most. Arendt is famous for depreciating post-Second World War international human rights. It is worth recalling that, in her classic reflections On Revolution, Arendt also warned against idolizing rights in the process of founding at home. “What saved the American Revolution,” she wrote, “was neither ‘nature’s God’ nor self-evident truth, but the act of foundation itself.” In turn, it was the mutual pledges of revolutionaries and founders to one another to move from destruction to construction on which everything depended. The rights of man may have returned—but only by bringing people face to face with the promise and difficulty of founding, which requires much more than normative principles.
The move from liberation to founding in the Middle East today is already getting lots of attention, albeit largely as observers voice understandable concerns about the shaky domestic play of forces, and the inevitable thumbs on the scale from outside parties. Everyone knows that, whatever terms bind the movements together, they are highly coalitional—and may fragment at a moment’s notice. And no one yet knows what role in the drama outsiders may consider taking up. As events in Libya move along a distinctive path, the mythology that nonviolence will prevail has been tested, and calls for “humanitarian intervention” have even cropped up. We watch and wait, for events to continue and for our local policymakers to struggle with their response.
In the meantime, we should never forget that, in the heady first weeks of the events, global sympathizers invoked rights, driven not by the familiar desire from the 1990s and 2000s to swoop in from outside, but by the hope that Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans would reclaim self-government for themselves. And we should also not forget that, in a dream at once old and new, there is no such thing as revolution against the old—or foundation of the new—from abroad.
Samuel Moyn, who teaches European history at Columbia University, is author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard, 2010).