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Revolution on the Nile: Lessons for Africa

The importance of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings for sub-Saharan Africa should not be overlooked, says Nicolo Gnecchi.

February 16, 2011
5 min read

Protests inspired by the movements in Tunisia and Egypt have already spread to Algeria and Iran, with journalists quick to follow suit. Meanwhile, in the West African nation of Gabon, thousands have taken to the streets of the capital, Libreville, in protest against the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba. The son of long-standing strongman Omar Bongo, Ondimba is accused of siphoning over $100 million from the tiny, oil-rich country between 1985 and 1997. The lack of mainstream media coverage does not hide the violent repression that the people of Gabon have faced. While the popular grievances and nature of the regimes certainly differ north and south of the Sahara, the recent African revolutions have had significant symbolic influence throughout the continent. Emphasising the point, one protester in Gabon held a banner reading: “In Tunisia, Ben Ali left. In Gabon, Ali Ben out.”

Predictably, official reactions to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions South of the Sahara have been muted. But it is early days yet. Africa, like the rest of the world, might still be coming to grips with the significance of this extraordinary display of people-power. Certainly, Mugabe, Museveni (Uganda), Biya (Cameroon) and Bongo, along with Africa’s other autocratic rulers, cannot ignore it for much longer. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s defence minister and close ally of Robert Mugabe, has already issued an ominous warning, declaring earlier this week:

“Those who may want to emulate what happened in Tunisia or what is happening in Egypt will regret it because we will not allow any chaos in this country.”

As Mugabe’s ZANU-PF ruling party is likely to announce fresh elections later this year, such threats from the Zimbabwean military are to be expected. Contrary to Egypt’s military, which until the recent uprising, were kept out of domestic politics, the Generals and “securocrats” behind Mugabe have often masterminded violent intimidation campaigns around elections. But these references are explicit, and Mubarak and Mugabe have more in common than not. Both are war veterans who have clung to power for over 30 years, maintaining an authoritarian, police state under the mantel of democratic legitimacy. Both have driven their people to abject poverty and desperation while their families and close allies have benefited exponentially from the fruits of power.

While the economic and political conditions for uprisings of the sort we have seen are important, civil society – peoples’ ability to organise a broad base movement outside of the traditional politics of opposition – is playing a vibrant role. It is highlighting the fallacy of the often stated idea that African societies are characterised by the lack of a distinct public sphere. Popular belief states that the majority is still governed by patrimonial politics and the prevalence of tribal ties, while pro-democracy and human rights agendas are criticised as Western imports. Such thinking leads to what Mamdani calls a “bifurcated state” that still segregates citizens and subjects.

The theory may have historical import but we have already seen in Egypt an spectacular dismissal of the much-flouted myth of Arab exceptionalism. The fact that the people of Egypt, not long ago denigrated as one of the most apathetic and submissive of nations, emerged in their millions in defiance of a brutal and ruthless regime, throws a massive spanner in the notion that Arabs, as opposed to the rest of the world, are uniquely adverse to democracy. The notion is as perverse an idea as the theory that Africans still posses some sort of antiquated communal logic that makes them more susceptible to neo-patrimonial forms of governance.

The very hybridity of voices that came, and stuck together under a universal cause was one of the most inspirational factors of Egypt’s revolution. The Kefaya movement (translates from Arabic as “enough”) is one such example. Coming to public attention in 2004, it defined itself as a “loose knit of diverse political trends” including Marxists, Islamists, Nasserists and Liberals. Despite deep rooted ideological differences, they united in acts of civil disobedience to call for the end of Mubarak’s rule and “withdraw their long-abused consent to be governed.” Theirs is a useful example for splintered opposition movements elsewhere.

The use of internet-based social media tools to mobilise diverse sections of society under broad-based movements in Tunisa and Egypt has been well documented. Wael Ghoni, the Google executive widely credited as a catalyst for the 25 January demonstrations in Egypt through his use of Facebook and Twitter, calls it “revolution 2.0”. Yet we should not be deluded into thinking that revolutions can – or must – be virtualised. The Egyptian uprising was the result of years of accumulated anger and frustrations, and the culmination of a long series of very real protests – in which many were killed, imprisoned and tortured – that have grown over the last 10 years despite lacking a broader means of organisation. Under a regime that held a tight monopoly over mainstream media, the internet provided a much-needed mobilisational platform in Egypt. Yet, while the widespread availability of the internet is still wanting in much of Africa, basic mobile phone technology is already playing an equally important role in other parts of the continent.

Africa is regularly portrayed as politically divided between an “Arab” north and an “African” south; of mutually exclusive spheres of influence. Yet this colonial construct has long been discredited by schools of post-colonial thinkers. In fact, a significant feature of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa was the convergence of pan-Africanism and pan-Arabism as advocated by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah. Nasser maintained that Egypt had historically occupied the centre of three concentric circles: the Arab, Muslim and African worlds. He argued, on that basis, that Egypt could not remain indifferent to liberation struggles in sub-Saharan Africa.

Such ideas were pivotal in influencing a common, anti-colonial bond that unified the Arab and African liberation struggles of the last century. They must now be resuscitated from the necropolis of narrow national discourses today if we are to envision a more pluralistic and democratic vision for Africa.

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