Egypt, Libya, and the Just War: Lenin versus Gandhi

By Omar Quinonez

Abstract: The ‘Arab Spring’ has finally seen its light. Revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia and Egypt have experience the collapse of decades-long regimes through peaceful protests, while Libya has taken the path of armed struggle. Such differences bring the Arab Spring to the philosophical table. What is the correct path for revolution? Are the Libyan rebels philosophically justified in their armed struggle? Or is non-violence the only ethical path for the Arab Spring? In short, the philosophical question for the Arab people is the question of the just war. This paper is divided in five sections. Section one claims that any theory of the just war must be grounded in the existential relations of humans to the world and to other human beings. Section two and three are dedicated to recounting the dawn and evolution of the Arab Spring in two countries: Egypt and Libya. Section four claims that there is a fundamental existential difference between the Egyptian and the Libyan situation: the former unfolded by generating relations of aggression, while the latter brought about relations of war.  Finally, the paper addresses the reason why Gandhi’s call for an absolute non-violent method is incorrect.



The ‘Arab Spring’ has finally seen its light. Revolutions have swept the Middle East and North Africa. From Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, to countries such as Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, all have seen some degree of popular demonstration. But it would be a mistake to assume the Arab Spring has taken a single path of action. Tunisia and Egypt have experience the collapse of decades-long regimes through peaceful protests, while Libya—and to a degree Yemen and Syria—has taken the path of armed struggle. Such differences bring the Arab Spring to the philosophical table. What is the correct path for revolution? Are the Libyan rebels philosophically justified in their armed struggle? Or is non-violence the only ethical path for the Arab Spring? In short, the philosophical question for the Arab people is the question of the just war.

This paper is divided in five sections. Section one claims that any theory of the just war must be grounded in the existential relations of humans to the world and to other human beings. It takes the traditional arguments for the just war and pushes them further, grounding them in a philosophy of existence. Section two and three are dedicated to recounting the dawn and evolution of the Arab Spring in two countries: Egypt and Libya. Section four claims that, given the existential grounding of the just war theory, there is a fundamental existential difference between the Egyptian and the Libyan situation: the former unfolded by bringing about relations of aggression against protesters, while the latter brought about relations of war. And it is only a relation war what can truly justify the armed struggle. As such, Egyptian protesters were not philosophically justified in carrying the armed struggle but their Libyan counterparts were.

Finally, the paper addresses the reason why Gandhi’s call for an absolute non-violent method is incorrect, claiming that the bringing about of relations of aggression and war existentially trumps Gandhi’s prohibition against killing human beings. That is, there is an existential relation brought about by the act of aggression which forces the victim to understand the aggressor only as an ‘object of aggression.’ While the aggressor might ontologically be an in-and-for-itself being, he is ontically only an aggressor. In other words, the paper claims that Gandhi’s mistake lies in the collapse of the ontic on the ontological. As such, the possibility of a Leninist armed struggle is existentially justified under specific circumstances.

Fighting the Just War? The Existentialist Case

The question of war has been in the mind of philosophers for centuries. The just war theory alone has been around since the times of the Roman Empire. Recently, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. unilaterism have risen questions about the validity of the traditional just war theory. On the one hand, the Bush administration has claimed that the rules of the Geneva Convention do not apply any longer, and that the U.S. will do what is necessary to protect itself. One the other hand, there are cries from anti-war activists—echoing those after WWI—to renounce war altogether because of its immorality. In this section, I want to claim that the just war theory is still relevant but stands in the need of revision. It must be reinvented by grounding it in ontological existential principles that arise out of the relations of human beings in the world. I will provide here the fundamental grounding for such reinvention.

The existentialist case for the just war begins with a basic principle: “what does it mean to say that someone has a right to life? To say that is to recognize a fellow creature  . . . whose person is as valuable as my own.”[1] That is to say, human beings have a right to life not because rights are empirical qualities that humans are born with, but rather because we recognize the existential value of our lives and of our fellow human beings. If this is the case, we are prima facie prohibited in taking away the life of another because we recognize that life is especially valuable. That is, destroying an object is categorically different from destroying the life of a person. The destruction of a person means precisely the destruction of what is radically dearest and closest to the human being: his or her own self. Therefore, the killing of a person forces him or her to go through a radical transformation from consciousness to nothingness, from life to death.  The destruction of the object does not entail such radical transformation since the object simply changes from one form to another, there is no radical ‘I’ that disappears.

If killing is prohibited due to the ‘sanctity of life,’ why do we typically accept the killing in self defense? We do not demand that police officers, soldiers, or civilians, do nothing when they are about to be killed because of the value of the aggressor’s life. In such circumstances, we allow the taking away of life, the killing and brining about in the aggressor the transformation from consciousness to nothingness. Why? Where does the philosophical justification for killing arise? It is here that I think Martin Heidegger provides an insight. Heidegger makes a distinction between the ontic and the ontological. Human beings are always ontologically caught into a universe of possibilities.[2] That is to say, one can choose to be this or that, to be an artist or a philosopher. Humans must decide what to become ontically by understanding their ontological possibilities. But human beings do not always do justice to their ontological possibilities. Heidegger sometimes referred to this as ‘falling prey to the world,’ in the sense that humans get so caught in their daily activities (the ontic dimension) that they forget about their ontological possibilities of being.[3] But even if unaware, humans decide on the materialization of possibilities through their actions.

Such ontic-ontological distinction holds true for question of war and killing in self-defense. Once a person decides to kill another, he is not just killing another individual but automatically closing down his own range of ontological possibilities. Existentially, he is in fact forcing the victim to take him in a specific way. The aggressor closes down his own ontological possibilities and actualizes ontically and existentially only one: that of an aggressor. The victim, then, does not encounter the aggressor as a full in-and-for-himself human being, but rather encounters him as an almost de-humanized other, an aggressor so inhumane that threatens the victim’s own existence. Nonetheless, the aggressor never fully stops being a human being, one still recognizes the other as capable of making at least certain choices—to kill or not to kill—but the kind of human being the aggressor becomes when encountered by the victim has effectively been limited. That is to say, there is a clear existential difference between a machine gun and a soldier firing at a distance: the latter still retains a capacity of making choices while the former is simply caused to act a certain way.

Therefore, it is the ontic closing of ontological possibilities in the aggressor that justifies killing. That is to say, we value the life of human beings because of their ontological possibilities and the decisions they make to translate those possibilities as ontic acts. However, once a person such as a soldier has decided to engage in aggression, he automatically reduces his own ontic materialization of ontological possibilities, and hence the kind of human being he existentially is. The fact that he is encountered as just an aggressor justifies the victim in firing back and killing.

Furthermore, what this particular view entails is that “war, conflict, and aggression, are relations between persons.”[4] That is, aggression, whether from a civilian or a soldier, is an existential relation into which individuals enter. Such relation is brought about by the aggressor’s acts that force the victim into hostility. As such, a soldier is only justified in killing another soldier once a relation of war has been entered. That is to say, if soldier A forces soldier B to enter a relation of aggression, A can be justified in killing B. But what is the basis in knowing that a relation of aggression has been entered? Precisely the experience of a threat to the victim’s existence, the experience of aggression as that which threatens life and the self.

It is also important to note that no individual is ever justified in bringing about a relation of aggression by committing hostility because aggression is only justified within an already-existent relation. Before entering into such relation, the other—even if it is a soldier—has not reduced his or her ontological possibilities and is encounter thus as in-and-for-himself-being. As argued above, there is a prohibition against killing because we take human beings to be in-and-for-themselves beings. Therefore, whoever brings about a relation of aggression always does it as an immoral act. Only the victim who was coercively forced into such relation can justifiably kill.

Moving on, the existential way of looking at the justification of killing has particular implication for war as a whole. First, a country can never be justified in declaring war against another but in self-defense against hostility. This is the case because states possess rights “derive[d] . . . ultimately from the rights of individuals, and from them they take their force. ‘The duties and rights of states are nothing more than the duties and rights of the men who compose them.’”[5] That is to say, states are said to have rights only because giving states rights is a way to protect the existential value of life. As such, to force a state into hostility is to force its people as well. And as described above, there is never a philosophical justification for initiating hostility. As such, Hitler’s invasion of Poland was immoral but Poland’s defense was justified.

Further, the killing of civilians is never permissible because the condition of ‘civilian’ means precisely the existential lack of any relation of aggression by such group. But the existentialist account of the just war makes a further distinction. Also, although hostile soldiers can be killed, non-aggressive soldiers cannot. Michael Walzer gives an existentialist account when arguing that soldiers have lost their ‘right to life’ precisely because they have gone through a transformation from civilians into soldiers.[6] I think Walzer here is correct. There is something existentially relevantly different in a soldier and a civilian but the difference does not generate a right to kill. The soldier is different than the civilian since the soldier has the potential to kill. He has been trained, he has weapons, and his uniform and insignias are symbols of potential aggression.

But the crucial word is potential. The existential transformation of the civilian becoming soldier is not that of an innocent into an aggressor. The transition is from an innocent becoming a potential aggressor. Just as in Heidegger’s ontic-ontological difference, the soldier has the ontological possibility of becoming an aggressor, but he ultimately holds the choice of weather to actualize that or not. This is the reason why a U.S. soldier stationed in Okinawa is not an aggressor just because he is in a foreign country, but he is one if he decides to murder and bring about a relation of aggression, even if war is never declared between the two nations.

Walzer himself pointed this out in Just and Unjust Wars. However, he overlooked the tremendous philosophical implications it brings. Walzer described the many times in which soldiers refused or hesitated in killing an enemy soldier when he did not pose an existential threat to them. One account from WWI goes as follows:

When we were marching along a sunken road, we got the wind up once. We knew we must have passed the German outposts somewhere on our left rear. All at once, the cry rang down, “line the bank.” There was a tremendous scurry of fixing bayonets, tugging of breech covers, and opening paunches, but when we passed over behold a German soldier haring along toward us, with his head down and his arms stretched in front of him, as if he were going to rake a high dive through the earth . . .  no body offered to shoot him, he looked to funny.[7]

The soldier was an enemy soldier who according to Walzer could be killed. He was not shot because he was too funny, that is to say, because he was not threatening and as such did not engage in a relation of aggression. But the platoon responded first by charging their bayonets and preparing to attack. This means that the presence of an enemy soldier became a potential for aggression but not an actual situation of aggression. This account brings the importance of the existential relation of aggression: soldiers refused to shot enemy soldiers because what matters is not a declaration of war by a country but the action of bringing about of a relation of aggression.

A similar account from the Spanish Civil War reads as follows:

A man presumably caring a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and run along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him . . . I did not shoot him partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists;” but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-create, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting him.[8]

The act of a soldier running half naked holding up his trousers does not represent an act of aggression, hence the refusal to kill. The republican forces were there to kill fascists, that is, to kill the abstract image of a fascist who they believed were aggressors. The particular soldier in the encounter, even if he really was a fascist, did not represent one at that time. Therefore, potentiality does not equal actuality. A soldier does not lose his right to life by being a soldier but has the potential of losing it at as soon as he engages in a relation of hostility.

Further, there a more restrictions with regards to who can be killed. The killing of a doctor helping an enemy soldier on the field is prohibited because the doctor has not entered into a relation of aggression. Even though he is helping an enemy soldier, he is in fact helping the man and not the soldier, “and our conflict with the soldier is not with his existence as a human being.[9] Bleeding, eating, smoking, and drinking, are all characteristics of human beings but not unique characteristics of he who has entered into a relation of aggression. The doctor, therefore, has not entered into hostile relations because he is helping only a human being and not a soldier. The killing of a state bureaucrat who makes no decisions regarding war is also prohibited because of his lack of entering into hostile relations. The minister of health is engaged in services for all who are human and not just aggressors.

This distinction between the man and the soldier is also shown by the account of a socialist leader in WWI:

Those strongly defended trenches, which we had attacked so many times without success had ended by seeming to us inanimate, like desolate buildings uninhabited by men, the refuge only of the mysterious and terrible beings of whom we know nothing. Now they were showing themselves to us as they really were men and soldiers like us, in uniform like us, moving about, talking, and making coffee, just as our own comrades behind us were doing at that moment.[10]

What this particular account points out is that behind the uniform of potential aggressor and actual aggressor, there are regular human beings with regular needs and desires similar shared by both enemies. As such, a soldier is always both, man and a soldier, and he can also behave and be helped in both ways. This distinction is precisely the reason why I argued above that the ontic manifestation of the aggressor never fully means that the aggressor stops being a human being: there is always an existential difference between a machine gun and a human aggressor since the latter has something in common with all humans.

Just as there are characteristics shared by all human beings, there are also characteristics of aggression. Shooting, throwing grenades, recharging ammunition, and ordering strikes, are characteristics unique of those who enter into relations of aggression. If a doctor picks up a gun and attacks others, or if he helps his comrade recharge his gun, he has successfully entered into an existential relation of aggression and has become an appropriate target of war. In the same way, if a civilian takes arms and fight, the individual has decided to enter into hostility; he no longer is a civilian and can thus be killed.

In addition, Thomas Nagel’s War and Massacre provides an existential case for those individuals who are not soldiers but participate in the functioning of the army. Ammunition factory workers, arms factory workers, tank technicians, airplane technicians, military strategists, military commanders, they are all appropriate military targets because they have all entered into relations of aggression by helping an army that is fighting another army. However, the same individuals are not appropriate military targets if they are killed while at church. It is not a quality in them that makes them appropriate targets but their actions which make them enter into relations of aggression.[11] While they are at church, sleeping, taking a bath, or eating, they are not producing actions that make them enter into hostility. By the same token, food workers, construction workers, and cloth factory workers, supplying the military are not appropriate military targets precisely because they are not entering into hostility. They have avoided entering into hostility because they are not supplying the soldier but the man. Just as the medic in the field, civilians working to take care of the man behind the uniform are no different than the same workers of another country not at war, or the workers of the enemy army: their actions do not help or contribute to aggression but the survival of the human behind the soldier.

Furthermore, Nagel’s insights also help to establish that there are appropriate methods of killing in war. Shooting with a regular gun or machine gun is morally acceptable because it kills the soldier that has existentially and by his own making transformed himself into an aggressor. Grenades, mortars, and other kinds of bombs are morally acceptable under the same reasons. Poison gas, dumb-dumb bullets, chemical, biological weapons, and thermonuclear weapons, are not appropriate methods of killing in war because of two reasons. First, they are intended to cause severe pain or maiming to the individual engaged in a relation of aggression. This particular intent is not really focused in simply stopping the soldier engaged in a hostile relation but to attack directly and severely the man behind the soldier.[12] Severe pain and maiming are not necessary to the defeat of an enemy army but are necessary to breaking down the psychology of the man behind the uniform. As such, they are not appropriate methods of war.

Second, thermonuclear weapons as well as chemical and biological weapons have the characteristic of making no distinction between soldiers and civilians.[13] If they are used during a battle they are most likely to also kill the medical staff and any other civilians present. They cannot be directed to those that have actually entered into a relation of aggression, making them inappropriate weapons. In this way, the weapons used to kill those who are engaged in hostile relations must be personalized against them and never against civilians,[14] and must also be directed against the soldier and not the man behind the uniform. Only the weapons that achieve this are appropriate weapons of military use.

I have outlined the most important philosophical principles of an existentially-grounded theory of just war. Taking the arguments from Michael Walzer and Thomas Nagel, it becomes possible to ground the just war theory in a philosophy of existence. The power of an existential theory of just war lies in its philosophical explanatory power. It shows the thinking behind the laws of war and the Geneva Convention. That is, it gives philosophical justification for the protection of civilians, POWs, non-military infrastructure, and non-military political personnel and workers. It is also a powerful tool to counter the arguments of the Bush administration’s reversal of the Geneva Convention, as well as the pacifists’ call for an end to any type of war.

Egypt’s Gentle Revolution:[15] A Return to Gandhi

‘The people of Tunis to the Arab world: liberty, equality, fraternity.’ This was the gift the people of Tunis sent their fellow Arabs. It echoed the gift of revolution the people of France had made to Europe that shocking year of 1848.[16] Egypt understood the message and boiled in revolutionary fervor on January 25th, 2011. That day, tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, and a change to the economic, political, and social conditions of the country.[17] The opposition decided to take the non-violent route. They marched and occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square, poured into the streets of other cities like Alexandria, and shocked the country with waves of strikes.

By January 29th protesters had grown exponentially, this time drawing numbers in the hundreds of thousands.[18] Then it was the government’s move. It responded by calling the security forces to the streets and attempted to control the situation through rubber bullets, tear gas, and a curfew. Nonetheless, the opposition continued to grow as journalists reported that by February first close to one million had taken to the streets.[19] Mubarak also ordered the army deployed, but the military command quickly issued a statement declaring its decision not strike at peaceful protesters.[20]

Mubarak then quickly shut down internet and cellular communications, and soon he also ordered trains to halt operations in an attempt to stop demonstrators from arriving to Tahrir Square. As the Egyptian security forces failed to contained demonstrators, President Mubarak rejected the idea of stepping down and rather ordered security officers and paid civilians to act as pro-government demonstrators and attack the opposition.[21] A reporter in Egypt shared his experience:

Ten people were reported dead and 800 injured yesterday at the focal point of the struggle, Tahrir Square in Cairo, after the president’s supporters mounted attacks on the crowd of protesters . . . pro-government mobs tracked down and beat Egyptian and international television crews and reporters, forcing their vehicles off the roads and besieging their bureaux and hotels.[22]

Such move by the Egyptian government quickly increased the attacks, beatings, harassment, and killings, of peaceful demonstrators. Pro-government forces arrived in state buses and attacked demonstrators with knives, live ammunition, Molotov bombs, and rocks.[23] One eye witness recounted:

They have rifles. They are shooting live ammunition at us. We’ve already—we’ve had a lot of wounded. I don’t know how many. The ambulance keeps on coming and carrying wounded people and speeding away with them. We have had so far four confirmed deaths. One of them was with a shot right through the head. And it just—it is still going on. And the army is there, and they are not moving, and nobody’s moving. And we keep on sending other of our people to the forefront to try and protect us, and we keep on losing some of them. And that’s how it is.[24]

However, the army as an institution refused to fire at protesters and at times worked to maintain a division between pro-government forces and the opposition, at instances killing armed pro-government aggressors. Mubarak continued refusing to leave power, and it was only after growing tensions and mild American demands, that Mubarak acceded to leave power after the expiration of his presidential term. Protesters rejected the offer immediately and vowed to continue their peaceful struggle.

By February ninth protests continued to grow as Mubarak’s pro-government demonstrators became unable to demoralize the opposition. A wave of strikes also shocked the country:

Thousands of workers at several service companies owned by the Suez Canal Authority have staged a strike. In Mahalla, 1,500 workers have staged a sit-in. At the Al-Ahram building, the state newspaper here, a hundred journalists have staged a protest in the lobby. Just driving over to Tahrir today, I saw a group of about a hundred or 150 electrical workers protesting in front of their district branch office.[25]

Human Rights Watch estimated that by February ninth there were at least 302 deaths since the protests began.[26] There were also reports of thousands of arrests and an illegal military crack down on journalists. Reports estimated that at least 119 journalists had been detained by the Egyptian government.[27] But hundreds of thousands of protesters remained on the streets. The Egyptian economy, on its part, suffered virtual complete paralysis. Pressure was mounting on Mubarak to resolve the situation. President Obama increased his call for Mubarak to institute reforms, while the European Union called for Mubarak to initiate a transition of power immediately.[28]

Soon the impossible became the actual. Under such tremendous sources of pressure and under 18 continuous days of persistent non-violent struggle, Hosni Mubarak resigned. On the night of February 11th his 30-year-old rule finally came to an end.[29] The people of Egypt had succeeded in overthrowing the ruler of the most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa. Their gentle non-violent revolution had entered the annals of history.

Libya and the Armed Struggle: A Return to Lenin

In Libya the ground was also about to tremble. Muammar Gaddafi’s charisma as the anti-imperialist of Africa was long gone. The country’s positive ranking in the Human Development Index, its high life expectancy and other social indicators, had all been swallowed by chronic unemployment, liberalization, and Gaddafi’s firm 42-year-old political monopoly.[30] The Libyan people finally stood strong on February 17th. Thousands took to the streets on Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi only to face water cannons from the police.[31] Qaddafi moved quickly as he did not want to live the fate of his two neighbors. As Benghazi appeared to be slipping away from Gaddafi’s control, the military took to the streets and brutally repressed protesters. Eye-witness accounts described a massacre in Benghazi, the army open fire at protesters with machine guns and shot demonstrators from rooftops.[32] Human Rights Watch reported that by the first week of the uprising 300 deaths had already been reported.[33]

But protesters resisted like never before. As in Egypt, protesters had taken the non-violent route and their specter of revolution soon hit Tripoli. There they faced their biggest challenge: “witnesses said groups of heavily armed militiamen and mercenaries from other African countries cruised the streets in pickup trucks, spraying crowds with machine-gun fire.”[34] The opposition unfolded in two forms: “though the Libyan revolt began with a relatively organized core of longtime government critics in Benghazi, its spread to the capital was swift and spontaneous, outracing any efforts to coordinate the protests.”[35] Further, as the opposition gained momentum even at the mist of Gaddafi’s brutal crack down, the unexpected occurred. Diplomats and military officers defected Gaddafi and joined the rebellion. Gaddafi’s response was brutal:

The troops blasted the mosque’s minaret with an anti-aircraft gun. A doctor at a field clinic set up at the mosque said he saw the bodies of 10 dead, shot in the head and chest, as well as around 150 wounded. A day earlier, an envoy from Gadhafi had come to the city from Tripoli and warned the protesters: “Either leave or you will see a massacre,” the witness said. On Tuesday night, Gadhafi himself called on his supporter to hunt down opponents in their homes.[36]

The liberated sections of Libya moved to set up government councils, which included middle-class representatives such as layers, doctors, and professors, but also female positions.[37] Protesters managed to transcend the class and east-west divide: “some of the cities which have thrown off Gaddafi, like Misurata, were known, for instance, for their steel mills. These are progressive forces who were fighting a wretched secret police regime.”[38]         

Members of the opposition decided to take on rifles to protect their families, but the worst was yet to come. By the first days of March there were estimates of 2,000 deaths in the country. Gaddafi continued a brutal attack on peaceful protesters that clearly violated the laws of war. Gaddafi forces used tanks, helicopters, and airplanes, to attack peaceful and unarmed protesters.[39] The international community was shocked when two Libyan air force pilots defected for Malta, claiming they had been ordered to bomb protesters. [40] The horizon of revolution would soon change. After horrifying repression, the opposition argued they could no longer fight Gaddafi as a peaceful movement. They dropped Gandhi in exchanged for Lenin. The opposition decided to take the armed struggle, to retrieve, arm, and fight back a conventional revolution. Just as the Bolsheviks once justified their violent struggle by pointing to the aggression of foreign and domestic forces, the Libyan opposition now justified their armed route:

There’s a very clear sense that this is an armed rebellion; any hopes of a peaceful revolution have long faded. One of the signs I saw in several places in the square reads, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Everyone realizes they’re in for a very long battle with Gaddafi and his heavily armed forces.[41]

As the revolution continued to unfold, the Libyan rebellion learned to behave more like a Leninist disciplined, hierarchical, and efficient organization:

In recent days, the rebels’ tactics and organisation have improved, and they have begun to resemble something like a trained militia, if not an army. Fighters now carry paper badges in plastic slips that list their name, number, and “brigade”. Newer identification cards are smaller, made of plastic, list blood type and feature a barcode. Rebel commanders have begun confiscating guns from those who don’t belong to the military force or who are deemed unreliable. Those [fighters] with prior military experience, on the other hand, are often placed in “lightning” or “sa’iqa” units, the so-called special forces who probe forward ahead of the main rebel body and secure frontline areas[42]

By May, the full spectrum of force used by the Gaddafi regime had become clear. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court revealed his findings about the Libyan situation. Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced on May 16th his decision to seek arrest warrants for Gaddafi, one of his sons, and the head of the intelligence office. Ocampo claimed Gaddafi and his inner circle committed war crimes and crimes against humanity by directly targeting civilians with live ammunition, heavy artillery in funeral procedures, and snipers for those living mosques after prayers.[43] The chief prosecutor also claimed Gaddafi forces had used written lists to arrest dissidents and torture them, while Gaddafi brought mercenaries from Sub-Sahara Africa and apparently used rape as a weapon of war.

Libya has now concluded its armed struggle. On October 23, 2011, after nine months of intense fighting and the dubious death of Colonel Gaddafi, the National Transition Council declared Libya liberated.[44] But the philosophical struggle is not over. The political left and right are both torn apart about the justification of the armed insurrection and the right of the international community’s decision to intervene in favor of the NTC. But the fate of the Libyan revolution and perhaps the Arab Spring in general rests on the shoulders of those have and continue to make history.

Lenin versus Gandhi?

This section will make two fundamental claims. First, it will claim that the Libyan rebels were philosophically justified in carrying a just war against Gaddafi’s forces, while Egyptian demonstrators did not have the same option. Second, it will claim that according to the existential theory of just war, the call of a restriction to non-violence struggle is incorrect. The philosophical difference between Egypt and Libya show clearly Gandhi’s mistake: the collapse of the ontic on the ontological.

There is one reason why Egyptian protesters were not justified in carrying a just war against the Mubarak regime. Although Egyptian protesters were unjustifiably targeted and killed by the Mubarak forces, Mubarak did not target demonstrators as a whole. He did not bring about relations of aggression and war against demonstrators as a group. His security forces targeted individual protesters as tensions rose, arresting individual dissidents and journalists, and as such brought about relations of aggression to them. This means that Mubarak forces were a legitimate target by those protesters being coerced into relations of aggression. They could have justifiably killed those security members who forced them into relations of aggression.

However, there is an existential difference between bringing hostility to an individual and to a group. When an individual targets another individual he creates a relation of aggression. As such, the victim is existentially justified in killing the aggressor. Nonetheless, the bringing about of aggression to an individual still operates within the framework of peace. The assassination of a politician is aggression but not war. The murdering of an innocent is a hostile action, but one that leaves untouched the fundamental essence of the entire community. It is prosecuted by institutions made for peace and not war. It is the police and not the army that responds. It is aggression, but aggression within the fabric of peace.

But when a country invades another, there is not just aggression, there is war. The victim country does not just mobilize those individual who were forced into a relation of aggression. The victim country mobilizes its entire military might. Why? Because a threat to a community or group shockingly targets something shared by all members. An invasion in the Atlantic shores of the United States is a threat even to those living in California. It threatens the basic social existence shared by all those members of the community. It is thus only when the entire community or group is existentially threatened that peace breaks apart and gives way for war. That is, an invasion and bombing of the U.S. effectively transforms the entire community into an object of war—it brings the whole community into a relation not of aggression but of war.

However, as mentioned above, those soldiers who are not directly brought into relations of aggression cannot kill even enemy soldiers invading the country. What this entails is that the community is transformed not into an actual but a potential object of war. Was there a relation of war brought against the Egyptian protesters? I claim no. Of course Mubarak’s security forces did target protesters because they were protesters, but their actual actions did not existentially come close to taking the whole group as a potential object of war. That is, as security forces were pushed to contain protesters, they did not have the means to through their actions take them as objects of war. Their aggression, and the means through which they lunched their aggression, was not enough to threaten the existence of the whole group. Lunching an arm insurrection because of the death of one protester is not enough: it requires the taking of the whole group existentially as a potential object of war. The fabric of peace, even at the mist of a number of deaths, has not been torn.

The situation In Libya was much different. Protesters took the same route as in Libya but were soon faced with an existential question: How can individuals and a group respond peacefully to such horrific force? That is to say, their existence as a group and their existence as individuals were threatened by their being transformed existentially into objects of war. The group was as a whole forced into a relation of war by Gaddafi’s use of mortars, machine guns, airplanes, and helicopters. Their force was so disproportionate that Gaddafi’s forces could truly pose an existential threat to the whole group. This is the usual existential distinction between a police force and a military force: although a police force could at times pose an existential threat, it is a civilian force, an institution dedicated for overall peaceful times. A military force, on the other hand, is deployed precisely when a threat is so large that it can threaten to bring an existential threat, a relation of war, to the whole group.

The Libyan opposition felt that the initial beatings, harassment, and killings were not enough to constitute a justification for an armed struggle. But as Gaddafi deployed its military power, it all changed. No longer were only individuals justified in responding to Gaddafi’s violence, but the whole group since the use of airplanes and helicopters, as well artillery and anti-craft fire, brought about a relation of war as it tore apart the fabric of peace. The horizon of relation effectively switch: now there was no longer a time of relative peace but with a popular demonstration being repressed, now it was a declaration of war on the rebellion. As such the rebellion’s motto holds true but needs change. That is, from ‘those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable’ to ‘those who make peaceful revolution impossible by brining about a relation of war make violent revolution justified.’

Once a relation of war has been brought about on the whole group, there is a justification for war and the armed struggle. But the rebellion is not without restrictions. As explained above, the existential justification for a just war prohibits violence on those who have not brought a relation of aggression. Libyan rebels cannot kill POWs, civilians, or government officials not related to the war machine. They cannot kill non-military workers, military medics, or target non-military infrastructure. In short, they cannot ever justifiably commit terrorism. Libyan rebels also have restrictions on how to kill. They are never justified in using non-discriminatory weapons such as poison gas, nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, as well as cluster bombs—although it is the Gaddafi regime that has used the almost universally illegal cluster bombs.

If the Egyptian protesters did not have the violent path open and the Libyans did, what can be said of Gandhi’s arguments against violence? Gandhi and the non-violent movement have committed the mistake of collapsing the ontic on the ontological. Gandhi claimed not to know the Absolute Truth.[45] Only through years of training and meditation was he able to gain knowledge, but only knowledge about the path to Truth.[46] It is precisely because he had no access to the Absolute Truth—what he equates with God—that he believed he could not kill another person.[47] That is to say, since he is ignorant about the ultimate Truth, he does not dare to take the life of another; he does not know if he can be justified in doing this.

There is something peculiar to this account. Although Gandhi does not know the Absolute Truth he does claim to know something: life is valuable. Gandhi recognizes there is something about life which is so important that no one can claim a right to take that away from anybody else. But this is precisely the existential claim. Gandhi is grounding the sanctity of life precisely on the existential recognition of the radical importance of how humans experience life. He might not know the constitution of the ultimate reality but he knows the relations and the existential way in which humans encounter other fellow beings.

And it is here were Gandhi goes wrong. That is to say, the moment when a human being enters into a relation of war, he is no longer ontically a full in-and-for-himself human being. He transforms himself existentially into just an aggressor. There is of course a man behind the aggressor, but what is explicitly encountered in hostility is the aggressor. Thus, the soldier shooting back is firing at the aggressor and not the man. Gandhi obliterates the ontic and ontological distinction, believing that a human being is existentially the same when attacking as when sleeping. That is, human beings are always the ontological beings full of possibilities whose lives we respect and ought to preserve. Hence, Gandhi’s confusion lies in the inability to distinguish between the ontic and the ontological. To distinguish between the self-imposed existential reduction of the aggressor as an aggressor, and the absence of this in the defendant

A letter to Gandhi by Martin Buber not only made a similar argument, but also advanced the claim about the difference between the Egyptian and the Libyan cases. Buber pointed out:

For I cannot help withstanding evil when I see that it is about to destroy the good. I am forced to withstand the evil in the world just as the evil within myself. I can only strive not to have to do so by force. I do not want force. But if there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands.[48]

Buber here touches on the importance of the ontological-ontic distinction. That is, the actions of the Nazis, their systematic destruction, humiliation, and killings, have transformed them existentially from fully in-and-for-themselves beings into simply aggressors. I do not think Buber was trying to point out a metaphysical quality of being evil, but rather that their actions have successfully reduced the Nazis’ own ontic existential possibilities to that of aggressors. The Jews, on the other hand, have neither brought about relations of war or aggression and as such are still ‘good,’ fully in-and-for-themselves, human beings. Thus Buber’s concern reflects Gandhi’s philosophical confusion of collapsing the ontic-ontological distinction and failing to grasp the existential constitution of the relations of war and aggression.

But Buber also points out the existential difference between the Egyptian and Libyan cases. He claims that the aggression of the English and Boars in South Africa and that of the Nazis in Germany was not the same.[49] That is to say, the English had caused death and destruction but their aggression was existentially different than the aggression posed by the Nazis:

Now, do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its Now, do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter? . . . Indians were despised and despicably traded in South Africa. But they were not deprived of right, they were not outlaws, they were not hostages to a hoped-for change in the behavior of foreign powers. And do you think perhaps that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down? Of what significance is it to point a certain something in common when such differences are overlooked?[50]

Buber sheds lights precisely on the key difference between the two events. Both the South Africans and Jews experience death, suffering, and harassment. The key difference between the two events—and the key difference between the Egyptian and Libyan experiences—is not based on the numbers of killings but on the existential experience of aggression. As Buber claims, Indians in South Africa could still express their views as the fabric of ‘peace’ had not been completely torn, even if some Indians had been killed. Those killed were victims of relations of aggression, not of war. The experience of the Jews was different. They had been horribly prosecuted and brutally killed: a destruction of the fabric of peace had given birth to a complete relation of war.

As such, Gandhi’s Satyagraha (non-violence) strategy can only work when a complete relation of war has not been entered. It could not have worked in Nazi Germany. Once a relation of war has been entered we are only left with the armed struggle, with are left with Lenin. Nonetheless, as any Hegelian dialectic, not even Lenin survives untouched: the armed struggle must follow the existential principles of any relation of war for it to ever be call a just war.


This paper has advanced three claims. First, it argued for a grounding and understanding of the just war theory as an existential enterprise. That is, that killing is justified only when a relation of aggression has been created. Through hostility the attacker chooses aggression as the ontic manifestation of his ontological possibilities. Nonetheless, this particular understanding of the just war theory brings about a whole array of restriction about who can be killed and how they can be killed. Second, through a look at the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions, the paper argued that a distinction between a relation of aggression and one of war has to be made: aggressor threatens an individual while war threatens a group. As such, it is only a relation of war that justifies the armed struggle, since the fabric of peace that still stands in a relation of aggression is obliterated. The paper further concluded that the Egyptian case did not bring about a relation of war while the Libyan case did. Finally, the paper advanced a critique against the non-violent movement, arguing that Gandhi overlooked the ontic-ontological distinction that justified killing. The Leninist armed struggle is vindicated, but vindicated only through a transformation of its own.

War is a messy business. Any theory of the just war can never fully take into account the complexities of human life and human relations. The layers of events in the Arab Spring are proof to this. Nonetheless, philosophers must insist on delineating the morality of war. Philosophers must insist on this because it will not be them but the courageous people of the many regions of the world who would need answers to the questions of war. As such, the philosopher’s task is to provide the parameters of the horizon of morality in war so that the protagonists are able to locate themselves and follow their path as best as possible through the messiness of war.

[1] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 142.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, (London: Harper Perennial, 2008), 53-55.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Philosophical and Political Writings, (New York: Continuum, 2003), 174-175.

[4] Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre,” Philosophy and Public Affairs (1972): 12, accessed May 26, 2011,

[5] Michael Walzer, 53.

[6] Ibid., 55-56.

[7] Ibid., 139.

[8] Ibid., 140.

[9] Thomas Nagel, 20.

[10] Michael Walzer, 141.

[11] Thomas Nagel, 19

[12] Ibid., 20.

[13] Ibid., 18.

[14] Ibid., 12.

[15] Title in reference to Amy Goodman’s column Single Payer Health Care: Vermont’s Gentle Revolution.

[16] Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 56.

[17] Catrina Steward, “Violence on the Streets of Cairo as Unrest Grows,” The Independent, last modified January 26, 2011,

[18] “The Egyptian Uprising,” The Washington Post, last modified January 29, 2011,

[19] “Million against Mubarak,” Democracy Now! last modified February 1, 2011,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Simon Tisdall, “Egypt Protests: Mubarak Shows His Dark Side,” The Guardian, last modified February 2, 2011,

[22]  Jack Shenker et al.,“US Hatches Mubarak Exit Strategy as Egypt Death Toll Mounts,” The Guardian, last modified February 4, 2011,

[23]“‘It’s a Massacre’: Eyewitness Account of Attack on Peaceful Egyptian Protesters by Pro-Mubarak Forces” Democracy Now! last modified February 2, 2011,

[24] “Eyewitnesses to a Massacre,” Democracy Now! last modified February 3, 2011,

[25] “Human Rights Watch: 300 Deaths, Massive Detentions and Abuse under Mubarak Regime Crackdown,” Democracy Now! last modified February 9, 2011,

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Mike Doming et, al., “U.S. Increases Pressure to Speed Up Mubarak Departure,” Bloomberg Business Week, last modified February 4, 2011,

Andres Cala, “Europe ups pressure on Mubarak, calling for immediate transition in Egypt,” The Christian Science Monitor, last modified February 3, 2011,

[29] “Hosni Mubarak Resigns as President,” Al Jazeera, last modified February 11, 2011,

[30] Rana Jawad, “Libya Grapples with Unemployment,” The BBC, last modified May 5, 2005,

[31] “Turmoil Erupts in Four More Countries After Egypt Revolution,” London Evening Standard, last modified February 17, 2011,

[32] “Massacre in Libya: Witnesses Say Protesters Have Taken Control of Benghazi Despite Gov’t Violence,” Democracy Now! last modified February 21, 2011,

[33] Ibid.

[34] Kareem Fahim et al., “Gaddafi’s Grip on the Capital Tightens as Revolt Grows,” The New York Times, last modified February 22, 2011,

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Gadhafi Forces Strike Back at Libya Uprising,” Aol News, Last modified February 24, 2011,

[37] “Libyans Organize Citizen Councils to Run Cities Liberated from Pro-Gaddafi loyalists,” Democracy Now! last modified February 28, 2011,

[38] “A Debate on U.S. Military Intervention in Libya: Juan Cole v. Vijay Prashad,” Democracy Now! last modified March 29, 2011,

[39] “Hopes of Peaceful Revolution in Libya End as Opposition Prepares for Long Battle Against Gaddafi Forces,” Democracy Now! last modified March 7, 2011,

[40] “Two Libyan fighter pilots defect, fly to Malta,” Reuters last modified February 21, 2011,

[41] “Hopes of Peaceful Revolution in Libya End as Opposition Prepares for Long Battle Against Gaddafi Forces,” Democracy Now!

[42] Evan Hill, “Libyan Rebels Get Organised,” Al Jazeera, last modified April 19, 2011,

[43] “ICC Prosecutor: Gaddafi Used his Absolute Authority to Commit Crimes in Libya,” The International Criminal Court, last modified May 16, 2011,

[44] “Libya’s new rules declare the country liberated,” BBC, last modified October 23, 2011,

[45] Joan Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), 16-17.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Nahum Glatzer et al., editors, The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue, (New York: Shocken Books, 1991), 485-486.

[49]Ibid., 477.

[50] Ibid.

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