Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Common and Uncommon Grounds

This is the second part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here. The series will consider the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. Responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.

As I indicated in my last post, the decision by the African Union (or AU) to not endorse the current military campaign in Libya has been mistaken by many observers and commentators alternatively as a sign of African leaders’ antipathy to political freedom and civil liberties; a reflexive hostility to former colonial powers, particularly France and Great Britain; a suspicion of the motives of the United States; and more. The related speculations have led to the equally mistaken conclusion that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA). The absurdity of the claim is that the only entity that imposed any outline of solution agreeable to Gaddafi has been the African Union and this is that Gaddafi himself would not be part of any future leadership of the country. But the AU has insisted on an inclusive negotiated settlement. The purpose of this series of essays is not therefore to examine the meaning and implications of the absence of ‘Africa’ on the battlefield of Libya, but to point to the larger geopolitical implications of the intervention for international order, global democratic governance, and the promotion of democratic ideals and political pluralism in the region undergoing revolution and beyond.

To begin, it is not just ‘Africa’, ‘African indecision’, and ‘African non-Normativity’ that are at stake in the characterization of African actions or inactions. Much of what is construed as ‘lack’ or ‘absence’ in Africa is also intended to give sustenance to the idea of the indispensability of the West – composed on this occasion by France, Great Britain, the United States, and tangentially Canada – to the realization of the central ends of the MENA Spring. The myth of the centrality of the West to the imaginary of freedom everywhere is inscribed in the name given to the events under description. In the US at least, the Arab Spring evokes many other ‘Springs’ all located in the West (including the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states). Likewise, ‘Jasmine’, the emblem of the Tunisian revolt has been advanced as evocative of the Ukrainian ‘Orange’ and other colour-coded European events. These allusions have justifications but they are seldom evoked comparatively to elucidate the originality and specificity of the MENA revolutions. In this latter regard, even the suggestion of an Arab Spring assumes that the majorities in the countries involved are Arab. This is not always the case in North Africa but Orientalism obliges!

The fact is that the ongoing revolutions in MENA are at once specific and universal in their own ways. Indeed, despite the distance in time, today’s so-called Arab Spring was preceded by equally momentous events in that region in the modern era, including the revolts of 1916 to 1919 (against Ottoman rule) and 1936 to 1939 (against Western imperialism); popular rebellions in Iraq and Lebanon in the 1980s (against domestic autocracy and confessional domination); the Palestinian intifadas of the 1980s and 1990s (against Israeli occupation). These events were interspersed with the struggle for decolonization (beginning with opposition to the colonial mandate sanctioned by the League of Nations); the 1950s rise of Arab nationalism including Ba’athism, the 1953 Suez Crisis (which asserted against post-Lockean notions of native rights to property that of indigenous peoples’ claims over their environment and resources). Nasser’s gesture was replicated later in a wave of nationalization of natural resources leading, inter alia, to the rise of the Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries (OPEC).

These events and subsequent ones – including but not limited to the 1980s anti-communist revolution leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and today’s tumultuous events in MENA – influenced parallel events in Africa just as events in Africa added to contemporaneous revolutionary fervours. Yet, most would agree that it was during anti-colonialism and the struggle for self-determination that ‘Africa’ gave sense and meaning to ‘national’ freedom. The struggle for national self-determination occurred in phases over the course of four decades. As noted previously, the first phase of the struggle for national self-determination was the 1950s mobilization against colonialism which was punctuated by events such as the Mau Mau revolt against British rule in Kenya, the 1950s uprisings in Madagascar against French rule, and the onset of the Algerian revolution. The second phase was the 1960s so-called transfer of power. This phase was characterized by a number of violent and non-violent confrontations between colonial overlords and anti-colonialists. The 1970s followed with wars of independence in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique as well as in white-minority ruled territories of Southern Rhodesia and South West Africa. The 1990s globalized struggle against apartheid in South Africa marked the end of the official or formal phases of decolonization and self-determination.

Predictably, the imaginary of freedom drew on a wide range of ideas including derivatives of Western ideologies extending from liberalism to Marxism; political practices flowing from international and transnational networks and movements; ethical principles including African solidarity, political pluralism, and international justice and coexistence; etc. The linguistic and moral postulates resulting from these events entered into the political discourses, if not habits and symbolic repertoires, of generations of African elites. In a way, the long African struggle for freedom was inspired and shaped by longer historical trends. On the positive side, there were the slave revolts of the New Worlds; the bourgeois revolutions in the US and France and the anti-slavery retort in Haiti; the 19th-century peasants’ and workers’ revolts in the Western world; the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; 20th century women’s liberation movements, the 1950s advent of a new Pan-Africanism, the 1980s anti-communist revolution leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The effects were palpable internationally. Already in 1960, African entities endorsed Khrushchev’s UN General Assembly resolution 1514, establishing self-determination as an essential principle of international relations. Consistent with Pan-African solidarity and anti-colonialism, African states also provided logistics and support to freedom movements from Algeria to South Africa via the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique. Already in the 1950s, Ethiopia and Liberia challenged Western practices of trusteeship in the context of the expired League of Nations Mandate granted to South Africa (now under apartheid) over the formerly South West Africa (now Namibia). This challenge by Liberia and Ethiopia to the mandate of the so-called international community fundamentally altered international jurisprudence regarding international custom developed during the era of imperialism. Finally, Africa states made the elimination of white-minority rule in Southern Africa (particularly in Rhodesia and South Africa) the ultimate test of racial justice in the international system and, in this regard, confronted the West over the matter.

The collapse of the Soviet empire too triggered political soul-searching that led to the 1990s ‘sovereign national conferences’ which cast disrepute on single-party regimes and authoritarian rule mostly in Francophone Africa. The so-called forces vives – mostly youth, women, and labour organizations – that ushered in these conferences did not necessarily succeed in bringing about democracy but they preceded today’s technology-savvy ‘Arab’ youth in demanding an end to authoritarianism, freedom of expression, and multi-party democracy. The national conference movements, like other modern revolutions in Africa and the Arab World, sought to ‘exorcize’ all corrupting influences in public life, whatever their origins and sources. The national conference movement began like the Tunisian uprising with public discontent over the state of the economy (particularly rising youth unemployment) and politics (specifically the absence of democratic participation). However, the immediate cause of the revolt was the implementation of structural adjustment programs mandated by the International Monetary Fund and endorsed by the World Bank. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any popular democratic movement in Africa, including North Africa, which did not challenge contemporaneous juridico-political regimes and their moral and economic bases.

Based on authoritative Western proclamation of abiding support for freedom, one would be tempted to think that Western governments and officials uniformly endorsed African movements for freedom. That would be a mistake. First, Western discourses in these regards are a tale of purposeful recollection, amnesia, and discounting. How do we explain that the absence of the national conference movements in the larger (i.e. outside specialized) debates on democracy? Could it be that the tone and content of these gatherings did not vindicate Western perceptions of self as provider of models of social and economic justice? Even today, the operative Western accounts of the 2011 Spring focus on street rejection of authoritarianism while omitting the deeper dissatisfaction with the neoliberal economic model. Yet, it is the execution of the latter that so accentuated the despair to the likes of Mohammed Bouazizi as to push them to self-immolation. This suicide in turn brought millions out to the street. With such accounting manoeuvres Western observers, commentators, and others have parsed the motivation and desired ends of the current revolutions so as to eclipse the demands for economic justice and cultural/communal affirmations that have accompanied the one on political participation.

Second, the actual roles played by the West have not be straightforwardly progressive. The dominant feature of Western intervention today has been to actively shape the demands of the freedom movements away from demands for economic and social justice and toward formal and controlled democracy. Thus, even as Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali quickly folded their tents and left the stage, the US, France, and some of their allies moved just as quickly to ensure that their replacements remained loyal to the international status quo ex ante. Despite its posture as guardian of normativity in the post-Cold War era, the European Union has followed the US in its attempt to protect Arab allies as well as security interests in the emergent world. Hence, the ambivalent responses to counter-revolutionary state violence in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria in contrast to Libya although their respective governments have uniformly turned old security schemes into deadly machines against protesters.

These contrasting responses show that the West is a dubious handmaiden of freedom. They are also suggestive of the revolutionary potential of the present movements to upset existing geopolitics. In North Africa today, the words khalas and Kefayah have emerged as terms indicating both dissatisfaction with extant autocratic governments and anticipation of a new democratic order. Subsequent processes have focused on the departure of presiding heads of state and their ruling parties. In our highly mediatized world, the dramas of disavowal and removal of individual rulers and the subsequent disbanding of their instruments of power have captivated the globe in a manner not witnessed since the 1989 downfall of communist regimes in the Soviet Bloc. As in 1989, there is near-universal relief that autocratic, authoritarian, and dictatorial forms of government are on their way to extinction and that the leaders of these regimes are ceding power. There is also near-universal empathy and spiritual communion with the young activists whose defiance and technological talents are displayed in this great adventure.

Three trends have marred this initial enthusiasm. The first, evident in Tunisia and Egypt, is that the transfer of power has not resulted in the transformation of politics consistent with the desire expressed in the streets (now symbolized by Tahrir Square) for popular democratic sovereignty. Such a turn would require the transformation of the structures of society, politics, and the economy, and the subsequent introduction of new institutions of governance consistent with democracy and social justice – not necessarily the sort of punitive justice about to be meted out against former rulers and a few of their cronies. The second distressing trend is the refusal of the leaders of Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria to heed the call for change and therefore to leave public office. The result of this refusal to cede power has led to bloodshed – and in the case of Libya might lead to civil war. The third trend – that most concerns me – is the apparent instrumentalization of the Arab Spring by outside powers.

I focus here on the external ideological battle already underway to control the central message and historical import of the Arab Spring. This parallel battle is taking place not only on the public squares where young people are challenging old regimes, but also in chanceries, newsrooms, and academic institutions in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and North America. It is in these spaces that the perceptions of the Arab Spring are fashioned for the purposes of policy regarding the modes of intervention, the use and targets of violence, and the degree and extent of force to be deployed. However, the actors in this larger drama do not have equal capacities, interests, or values although they may all proclaim to advance the same ideals of freedom, justice, and peace. The outcome of these contests for power will affect the future of international law and forms of sovereignty, democratic governance, and justice to a greater degree than anything to be expected from the streets of MENA alone.

To shore up their interests in this context, the former patrons of the now discredited regimes – the US, Great Britain, and France – have rushed in the unfolding dramas under different guises. In the ideological instance, these states have presented themselves as arbiters of the legitimacy of the outcomes. To be sure, they were neither invited in this role nor expected to play it fairly. Notwithstanding Orientalist theses, the trajectory of modern autocratic rule in the MENA meshes well with Western involvement in the two regions. From this perspective, the three Western states backing the insurgency in Libya today have merely smuggled old antagonisms onto new discursive and strategic terrains. Indeed, one of the most striking parallels in the struggles for freedom in the Middle East is the degree to which Western powers have been involved in the region throughout the modern era. Throughout this long involvement, these powers alternated between peace and hostility with different political entities of the region, selectively supporting some leaders and opposing others. The degree to which the West was willing to use violence to suppress dissent or support causes was founded upon a blend of political pragmatism, theological animus (veering from open to subtle forms of Islamophobia), and commercial and security interests. For instance, before formal Western trusteeship and colonialism, European powers and American colonies entered into formal and informal agreements with North African political entities. The Barbary Treaties, which the US signed with political entities on the Coast of Barbary, now North Africa, are illustrative in this regard. Yet, as Western powers became more and more dominant, they were no longer satisfied by the terms of treaties already favorable to them. One of the many examples was the confrontation over the Gulf of Sidra between the Reagan Administration and the regime of Muhammar Kaddafi (or Gaddafi)

The second feature of the relationship between the West and North Africa flows directly from theological animus, still on display today in regard to Turkey’s admission to the European Union. This animus is leftover from the Crusades whose outcomes still remain etched in the memories of vast constituencies in Europe and the West. To these constituencies, including Christian fundamentalists, the 1492 defeat of Moors in Spain continues to be narrated as the beginning of the coming restoration of the former Christian dominion. Later, during the Arab revolt of 1916-1918, against Ottoman rule, a coalition of Western states instrumentalized international morality through the mandate system to advance parochial commercial and security interests in the region. The mandate system both affirmed ongoing intra-Western accords (including but not limited to Sykes-Picot) and established the context for additional ones.

This animus accounts for the negative connotations imputed to things Arab, which now stand for non-normative behaviour. This animus nourishes the Orientalist imaginary to some extent.

4 thoughts on “Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Common and Uncommon Grounds

  1. Re this sentence in the post:
    Already in 1960, African entities endorsed Khrushchev’s UN General Assembly resolution 1415, establishing self-determination as an essential principle of international relations.

    The reference is to UN GA Res. 1514 of Dec. 1960, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Although Khrushchev, in a UN speech in Sept. 1960, initially proposed that such a declaration be taken up by the General Assembly, the draft that the GA eventually adopted was one submitted by Cambodia on behalf of a number of Asian and African countries, not the draft submitted by the USSR.

    From Edward McWhinney’s discussion of the procedural history for the UN-sponsored Audiovisual Library of International Law link:

    “The topic was discussed in the General Assembly from 28 November to 7 December 1960 and from 13 December to 14 December 1960 (A/PV.925-939 and A/PV.944-947). The General Assembly had before it, in addition to the draft Declaration submitted by the USSR (A/4502), another draft submitted, on 28 November, by Cambodia on behalf of 26 Asian and African countries, which was eventually sponsored by 43 delegations (A/L.323 and Adds. 1 to 6). The latter draft was adopted without change by the General Assembly, by a vote of 89 to 0, with 9 abstentions, in resolution 1514 (XV) entitled ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’.”


  2. Pingback: Looking Beyond Spring (Grovogui) « AUTONOMIZANDO

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