Not since the 1960s has the idea of a common Arab identity seemed more real. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolts were quickly defined as Arab uprisings; sure enough, these historic events have already reverberated in Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia.
But Tunisia and Egypt can also be described as African countries, and not just because of their geographic location. The nations of North Africa have been imagined as African by some of the region’s political and intellectual luminaries.
Even Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s leader from 1956 to 1970 and an eloquent paladin of pan-Arab ism, invoked the African element of Egypt’s identity. In his brilliant “Philosophy of Revolution,” written in 1954, Nasser described Egypt as part of three separate spheres — Arab, Islamic and African — and aspired to lead Africa’s struggle for freedom.
Frantz Fanon, the most-important theorist of Algeria’s independence movement, viewed that country’s revolution as the vanguard of a broader African revolution. In the imaginations of Nasser and Fanon, Africans were united by a common enemy: European colonialism.
A half-century later, African nations are still joined together by common problems: youth unemployment, rising food prices and regimes that hold elections but often fail to transfer power to opposition leaders.
Given Tunisia and Egypt’s hybrid identities, do their popular revolts mean anything for Africa, south of the encroaching Sahara? There are two ways to consider this question: First, will Africans seek to influence the unfolding events in North Africa? And second, will the winds of change blow south?
Thus far, the response of African politicians to the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt has been muted. There have been no official declarations by African leaders, either individually or collectively through the African Union. Even the 16th African Union summit, held in Addis Ababa on Jan. 30-31, failed to produce a statement on the ongoing turmoil.
To be fair, it has been an eventful year for Africa, and we’re only one month into 2011. Africa’s political elite has its hands full with the Ivorian election crisis, the creation of the new state of South Sudan and a flurry of elections this year, including in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. It’s hard to blame Africans for paying scant attention — at least publicly — to the revolts in North Africa.
But many of Africa’s more-autocratic regimes must be worried that their own streets will explode. There are tiny signs of contagion. In Mauritania, a young man set himself on fire, reportedly invoking the now-famous Tunisian self-immolation in a Facebook message. Anti-government protests have also erupted further down the Nile, in northern Sudan: in Khartoum, el-Obeid in the west and Kassala in the east.
But these sparks on the street have been limited to countries with large Arabic-speaking populations. Elsewhere, the signs of contagion have been limited to elites. According to the local press, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangerai has warned that his country could erupt in mass protests. Some prominent African journalists have also hailed the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and drawn comparisons between North and sub-Saharan Africa. Charles Onyango-Obbo, a Ugandan journalist and one of the region’s leading commentators, celebrated the revolts in his Jan. 31 column in the East African. In the article, entitled “Tunisians Do Africa Proud as 2011 Starts with a Bang,” he compared Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini and suggested that the Ugandan army would retreat if faced with comparable mass protests. The uprisings have also been praised in the francophone press. One recent article in the Senegalese SudQuotidien was optimistically titled “La Crépuscule des Dictateurs,” or “The Twilight of the Dictators.”
There are also signs of economic contagion in Africa. The Egyptian turmoil arrived on the heels of Côte D’Ivoire’s post-election crisis. On Feb. 1, the West African country formally defaulted on its Eurobond debt. Investors appear to be viewing these events as evidence of surging political instability across the African continent. According to Reuters, yields on other sovereign bond issues in Africa — including those of Senegal, Gabon, Nigeria and Ghana — have moved higher in the past few days.
Nevertheless, though hard predictions are impossible and unwise, several factors make it unlikely that the revolts will spread further in Africa. First, the veneer of democracy is shinier in sub-Saharan Africa than in North Africa and the Middle East. One reason is that, in general, African countries did not face Islamist insurgencies when they embarked on democratic transitions in the early 1990s, so there was no need to brutally repress opposition movements. There are enough visible signs of fledgling democratic processes to tamp down the popular urge to revolt. Second, Africa’s ethnic cleavages have prevented the creation of collective identities that are necessary to drive the kind of unified national protests witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia. It is revealing that not even the Ivorian election crisis has provoked broad-based public demonstrations.
In the end, though, whether these revolts remain an Arab affair will be decided by Africans themselves. The revolution in Tunisia seemed impossible until it was not. And the fire kindled by that revolt is as visible in Harare and Kampala as it is in Cairo.
Michelle Sieff is senior analyst at DaMina Advisors, a political risk consulting company focused on frontier markets. Click here for a free trial subscription to World Politics Review.
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