Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences


29