Sunday, January 30, 2011

Africans Revolt in the Middle East: How Egypt's Revolts Won't Impact Africa

The narrative of Egypt’s protest by the west has been void of Africa and void of an analysis on its implications for Africa. Egypt is often cited, together with South Africa and Nigeria as the strongholds in Africa. In fact, Egypt was instrumental in the creation of the African Union (AU) and its neighbor Tunisia, is home to African institutions like the African Development Bank. Yet, it appears that the narrative surrounding the peoples revolts in North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt) are being covered as if they bear no consequence or effects for African nations in the continent that they belong to. It is certainly appreciated that the revolts will have effects on Middle Eastern countries like Jordan and Yeman, but it should be appreciated that we cannot pretend that it does not affect Sub-Saharan Africa. We can certainly not expect current African leaders to make bold statements about the revolts in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt because it has consequences for many their own leaderships. In fact, the African Union has stood in the background as they meet at the 2011 African Union meeting and continue to discuss the fate of another dictator, Gbagbo. Instead, we are confronted with a string of CNN experts on Middle East that have been summoned for a political analysis, but have yet to hear CNN (or any other major network in the US) inquire about the African Union’s position on the revolts or any opinion on what this means for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, there has been no mention on how these revolts will affect its immediate neighbors, Sudan and Libya. Sub-Saharan African countries have many historical, political, cultural, and economic similarities with the North African countries (including a shared land mass), yet there is the continued popular western tendency is to separate North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. This sentiment manifests in the types of narratives and coverage we are hearing from the western media and politicians about the revolts.

The perception that somehow Africa is a homogenous continent and that all Africans are Black, Christian, or non-Arabic, non-Muslim is an underlying assumption used in denying North Africa's connection to the rest of Africa. The other factor centers on an unwillingness to attribute ancient Egyptian civilizations advancements to the continent of Africa because of the euro-centric belief that there were no advancements in Africa by Africans prior to European contact (hence, North Africans are not African). The argument is that North Africans have ‘Middle Eastern” cultures, but at what point does “middle eastern culture” simply become “North African culture or African culture in the North Africa?”.  The current social construct of the Middle East has been inconsistent, irrational, and problematic for many. North Africans should be able to claim a double heritage of being African countries with Middle Eastern heritage. It is possible for a continent to have multiple cultural groups in it.  As an example, the East Asian country of China and the south Asian country of India are both in Asia but have different cultures but share some similarities as Asian countries. Similarly, the countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Morroco, may have ‘Middle Eastern’ cultures, but also have strong African roots that are similar to countries like Sudan, Nigeria (which both have a large Muslim populations), Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya. Egypt and Sudan's histories have intertwined for years. Instead of trying to separate the continent, we (particularly, the west) should allow space for duality for these countries. We should be looking at North African and Middle Eastern cultures as having the same cultures as opposed to trying to separate North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. Whether one likes to admit it or not, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Western Sahara and Sudan are African countries and their histories are part of the history of Africa.

The practice of western governments supporting African dictators is not unique to North Africa, it has happened in many African countries. In the age of internet and Wikileaks though, its harder for them to deny propping up dictators. Particularly, those that do not have the support  and interests of their people. Egypt and Tunisia are not the only African countries that suffer high inflation and unemployment under dictators. This is happening in other countries throughout the continent like Zimbabwe, Gabon, and Senegal. The difference is the west tends to think that African people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, only revolt because they can’t get along with others from a different religion or ethnic group (“tribalism”). Africa’s problems are not only about race, ethnic groups, or ‘tribes’- economic injustice is usually an underlying factor that takes form in ethnic tensions. Africans across the continent struggle for economic a political justice and this plight is not unique to North Africa. Africans all over the continent are seeking fundamental changes. The events in North Africa will have consequences in Africa (See: Fire in the Arab World: A real lesson for African politicians).  In fact, according to political scientist Alemayehu G. Mariam, Ethiopia’s government has issued a complete blackout on coverage of the Tunisian riots to its public for fear of it spreading to its borders. One wonders if this year will mark a second revolution for many African countries - a peoples' revolution where all the people of Africa will take back their countries from dictators and send them packing to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia seems to be a popular destination for dictators. Another infamous African dictator, Idi Amin, went to Saudi Arabia to seek refuge just like Ben Ali did, and this is the potential destination for Mubarak. So when Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left power, the revolution was not just a Middle Eastern story, it was also an African story. As noted in an article by Alemayehu G. Mariam, “The Tunisian people's revolution should be an example for all Africans struggling to breathe under the thumbs and boots of ruthless dictators.” Similarly, the revolt about economic injustice is an African story. 

So as the African Union meets in Ethiopia this week to discuss events on the continent, two of its long standing leaders may not be represented. African leaders are already dealing with the repercussions as they sit to discuss the current protests in Gabon. Already, we are seeing revolts of over 5,000 people in the Gabon revolts that started Tuesday, January 25th, 2011. In  surprising move, the opposition leader, Mba Obame declared that he is the winner of the contested 2009 elections and is the legitimate president.  During the 2009 election, there were riots in Gabon over the election results that soon died out. Obame this week cited Ivory Coast and Tunisia during a rally, saying "history was on the march". In this case though, it is clear that Obame is the figurehead of the revolts and that it may not be a grassroots movement but a politically led one. Other African Presidents like Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal have stated that he is not worried about a revolt occurring in his country because he would be able to suppress it. Nevertheless, there is evidence that African leaders across the continent are paying close attention to the events in North Africa because it has real consequences for Africa. However, coverage of the revolts and its effects have not been inclusive on its impact on sub-Saharan Africa even though Egypt is in Africa.

It was interesting to hear CNN’s “Facts about Egypt” being reiterated by CNN presenters that included a historical accounts of Egypt void of colonialism. CNN reporters are repeatedly citing that Egypt’s economy was under “foreign control” until 1953. By ‘foreign control’ they are indirectly referring to colonialism and are clearly glancing over the effects of foreign economic control over and neo-colonialism had on Egypt’s economy. True, it is not the only reason for wealth not trickling down to its masses, but my argument here is that one cannot just ‘glance’ the fact that the period of foreign control they are referring to  was colonialism, and colonialism is a part of the history and legacy in every African country (including Ethiopia, albeit not being colonized). When anti-colonial struggle were being fought on the continent, it was the people of the African continent that worked together to overthrow imperialism on the continent. It was not a Middle Eastern anti-colonial movement that came in to liberate North Africa; it was African people living under similar conditions jointly seeking self-liberation.  Not acknowledging Egypt’s colonial legacy or its connection and leadership in the continent robs Egyptians of their history in a subtle but meaningful way. Africans have long struggled for freedom over several years. The forms of governments that are in power in contemporary Africa have their roots in colonialism and the African experience. The North African revolts need to be analyzed given richer insight inclusive of the African historical experience.

1 comment:

  1. Here is an article from Al-Jazeera that was written today about the same topic that is worth reading - It hits on almost all the points discussed in my comment: