Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Echoes of Time Before Tahrir Square

This is the fifth and last part in a series of posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here; the third here; the fourth here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


It would be disingenuous to relate events in North Africa and the Middle East (or MENA) today without reference to the media. Here too, there are many possible angles to examine. I will focus on the institutional support that the media provide in shaping consensus in support of foreign policy. In this regard, so-called mainstream Western media and networks (BBC, CNN, Fox, RFI and the like) have played a significant role in generating domestic support for the Libyan campaign. The media find themselves in the contradictory positions of both providing sustenance to foreign policy rationales and reporting on government actions. In this role the media either wittingly or unwittingly assumed the position of justifying contradictory Western foreign policy aims while trying to satisfy the needs of their audiences (especially domestic constituencies and home governments) for information from the front. Consistently, the media often generate sympathy for foreign actors or entities that either support Western interests or have affinities for Western values.

This role is not without a cost, especially when foreign policy actions, including wars, fail to attain their objectives. When the outcome of foreign policy proves disastrous, Western media also have an inexhaustible capacity to either ignore their prior support for the underlying causes or to reposition themselves as mere commentators on events over which they had no control or could not prevent. Increasingly, these tendencies have spread around the world as evidenced in the techniques and styles that have propelled the Qatari-based Al Jazeera into prominence as key contender in the emergent game of production, circulation, and consumption of foreign policy-concordant images for their affective and ideological effects.

So it is not surprising that the backdrop and background scenarios for most reporting on the 2011 revolts in MENA are dimensions of Orientalism, of which they are many. But the most constant is one of autocratic ‘barbarism’. In this regard, the discourses and media techniques for creating and supporting sympathetic figures are just as constant (or invariable) as Western states rationales for intervention. The media-hyped stories of Oriental despotism that preceded Operation Desert Storm, when the US expelled Iraq from Kuwait, have provided the template. During that event, for instance, media feted their viewers with stories of invading Iraqi hordes storming through hospital only to disconnect incubators and let helpless infants die a slow death. These and many stories of heroic bids by US soldiers to prevent such barbarism were later discredited but not the other horrific stories which convinced US citizens of the need to wage war on Saddam Hussein’s occupying army. In the Libyan case today, one of the earlier images of the aura of impunity created by Gaddafi was that of a Libyan female lawyer who was allegedly raped by Gaddafi’s forces. There was also a reported event of military takeover of a hospital.

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Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: An African Perspective on the World Order after the Arab Revolt

The first of a series of posts by Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University (followed by a second, third, fourth and fifth installment). He is the author of Sovereigns, Quasi-Sovereigns and Africans: Race and Self-Determination in International Law and of Beyond Eurocentrism and Anarchy: Memories of International Orders and Institutions, as well as a number of articles on race, sovereignty, postcoloniality and human rights and what the history of slavery tells us about the contemporary discourse of international politics. Reposted from The Contemporary Condition. Images by Pablo.


There is much misunderstanding today about the decision of African Union (AU) to not endorse the military intervention in Libya undertaken by France, Great Britain, and the United States in conjunction with a few Arab States. Speculations abound as to whether the uniform decision coming out of Africa indicates that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across North Africa and the Arab World; or whether the absence of Africa in the battlefield of Libya merely suggest military ineptitude and political bankruptcy. In fact, it is not accurate that the African Union has been indifferent to the conflict in Libya. The AU opted for mediation and negotiated constitutional compact, with the aim of fostering a different kind of politics. The uniform refusal of the AU to endorse Western intervention has two main explanations. The first is the practice of consensus in decision-making which has long history within Africa. The other is profound unease on the continent about the form and foundation of the intervention itself.

I suggest that there is continent-wide scepticism in Africa about Western leadership in the eras of global governance, the rule of (international) law, the status of international morality, and the future of global democracy. This development is the result of continental experiences with the modes of enactment and execution interventions in Africa. The African position arises therefore from doubt that the coalition of Western powers leading the military effort in Libya today can be trusted to not abuse legitimate anti-Gaddafi sentiments; to not instrumentalize international law and morality; and to not subvert UN procedures and the mechanisms of global governance in order to advance hegemonic agendas and parochial ‘strategic’ interests. In short, underlying the African objection to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa and the self-identified ‘West’ around the representations of the will of the international community, the resulting global democratic deficit in times of intervention, and their effects on international morality, including the principles of humanitarianism.

In relating this conflict, I do not wish to speak for a uniformly-defined ‘Africa’ and/or for all African entities. Continue reading