The revolution spreading through North Africa and the Middle East is primarily concerned with toppling corrupt and brutal dictatorships. At the same time, it's a rejection of the warm, fuzzy promises made by globalisation.
In many ways, globalisation is just another ideology imposed on Africans, much like communism and socialism were in the past. And nobody benefits – apart from the elite.
The recent revolutions in North Africa have reawakened a vicarious revolutionary spirit in many Africans. Some of us are denizens from nations with a history of revolution in the background, albeit either aborted or derailed to a more disastrous route. The rest of us are subjects who more or less fit a description drawn once by the BBC as “the poor, the pushed-around and the never-consulted”. Maybe we're just biding our time before we emulate the Tunisians and Egyptians.
I am an Ethiopian. So when I first heard about the sudden uprising of Tunisians – and the way they refused to budge unless their corrupt ruler remove himself – it rekindled my memory of the spontaneous popular revolution of my country. The one which saw the collapse of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime in 1974.
Tunisians' reluctance to be appeased by the dissolution of the cabinet with a replacement of a “new” one also reminded me of the Ethiopians' rejection of the aging monarch’s appointment of a new prime minister, Endalkachew Mekonnen. Endalkachew’s plea for “patience” to an angry public already at the end of its tether was rebuffed with a wisecrack in Amharic roughly translated as: “Changing the stove will not make the stew any better”. So the revolution pushed on, carrying the motto: “Ethiopia forward! Without shedding any blood”. But it was with no known personality or group to lead it to achieving its lofty goals. Unfortunately, the military stepped into the vacuum, turning the whole exercise into a nightmare. To date, Ethiopia has yet to recover from that experience.
When the highly infectious revolution in the Maghreb region was transmitted to Egypt, a like-minded journalist shared an experience from the perspective of her own country, Iran, in The Telegraph. Senior city correspondent Helia Ebrahimi readily admitted that “the downfall of 30 years of oppressive rule, and a people’s uprising should create a sense of hope.” She added, however, that: “As a Persian, born in an early period of a revolution, the prospect leaves me stone-cold scared. This is not the Berlin Wall. And what is waiting on the other side is not West Germany.” After pointing out the similarities of the Egyptian revolution with that of the Iranian revolution in 1979, she concluded: “It is a miserable fate that the choice has to be between self-enriching despots and controlling clerics who covet power over every aspect of life”.
That’s not only food for thought, but a solid point to mull over and it set me to thinking about whether the revolution in North Africa has been directed only against dictatorships or whether it’s also a rejection of globalisation as promoted by the US and its Western allies in almost every country in Africa. If so, I said to myself, is there any comparison between the revolution in North Africa and the uprising in the Eastern Bloc that put an end to communism?
The media coverage of the revolution is another area that intrigued me to the point of provoking my recollection of the propaganda exchange between the two rivals during the Cold War. As the saying goes in my country, I would also collate the wisdom of “boycotting sleep for fear of nightmare”, vis-à-vis the wisdom of postponing legitimate demands in a revolution for the sake of stability lest rabble-rousers and extremists take over. Needless to say I leafed through some historical narratives to come up with my own thesis.
In almost all countries in the sub-Saharan region where there is egregious repression accompanied by abject poverty, at one time or another spontaneous uprisings take place. Unfortunately, these uprisings don’t attract sufficient attention from the big media that play a dominant role in our “global” village. Until it persisted and spread like a bush fire, the coverage the Tunisian revolt elicited was perfunctory.
Since the big powers that call the shots in our “global” village have enormous vested interests in Egypt, from the beginning the coverage of the revolution in Egypt was intense, as well as focused on regaining influence over that ancient civilisation of the Middle East. Joel Barkan from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies recently made this point in “Straight Talk Africa”, a talk show hosted by Shaka Ssali on Voice of America. Reminiscing about CNN’s intensive coverage of the Filipino uprising against Ferdinand Markos, Barkan hinted that the “corporate world’s” media coverage in developing nations goes hand-in-hand with strategic interests.
Just as Markos successfully projected himself as a strong ally to stem the tide of communism in the Far East, invoking the contiguity of Egypt to Israel, Hosni Mubarak too cut the image of a moderate Arab leader without whom the region’s stability would go down the drain. The difference this time was that the Western media was eclipsed by another powerful media player that dared to show the flipside of the coin, Al Jazeera. As Free African Media reported previously, citing The Daily Beast: even US President Barack Obama “follows Al Jazeera and the White House has two television sets running, one tuned into CNN and the other with Al Jazeera streamed by satellite, covering developments in Egypt”.
Considering the billions of dollars invested by the US in Egypt’s military alone, one hasn't been surprised to see Washington’s nervous interest in developments in Cairo over the past couple of weeks. What’s so surprising is the speed with which the mainstream media in America began to make insinuations and sometimes outright accusations against Al Jazeera. As reported by Free African Media, The New York Times portrayed Al Jazeera as having played a “galvanizing role” in Tunisia’s revolt. The paper of record wrote that Al Jazeera “helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments and against Israel ever since its founding 15 years ago.” It also quoted academic Marc Lynch, who specialises in Middle East studies, “It’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera,” giving the impression the Qatar-based broadcaster was established for the mere purpose of badmouthing Western interests. When one learns how Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief, Abderrahim Foukara, faced snide comments from CNN, implying that “his channel was inciting revolt and fuelling Middle East insurrection”, one cannot help but be immensely amused by the perennial Western hypocrisy.
As a product of the Cold War who grew up on the BBC, VOA and later CNN – to the extent of being bamboozled – to me Al Jazeera is a welcome voice that lays bare the double standards of the Western world. My only regret is that I am unable to listen to its broadcast in one of the richest languages of our world: Arabic (its Arabic channel is not available in Uganda, where I live.) If Al Jazeera is accused of bias, so be it. As the celebrated journalist Robert Fisk once quipped: If journalism has to be biased, it has to be biased towards the underdogs. On another occasion, Fisk dispelled the notion that journalism can be objective, stating that: “What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power”.
Just as one fine day a lady called Rosa Parks’ defiance against racism rocked the establishment in the US and another day the resolution of an angry Indian due to a seemingly trivial fracas on a train changed the course of history, the gruesome suicide of a hitherto unknown Tunisian called Mohamed Bouaziz served as a catalyst to galvanise the whole region. The rest is history being narrated live without the need to wait for days to hear or read about it, thanks to the digital age.
In an article written on 28 December, columnist Brian Whitaker drew a similar parallel in The Guardian between the uprising that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania following the harassment of a nobody ethnic Hungarian priest and the revolt that chased Ben Ali out of his palace and his country. On the other hand, while it’s true that the cumulative effect of injustice may lead to sudden and unexpected revolution, the role of the media, particularly propaganda, should not be downplayed. Yet, if accusations are to be levelled on this basis, the Western media along with its partners such as Hollywood and various publishing houses, would be the main culprit. On top of obfuscating the fact that Ceausescu was one of the few leaders in the Eastern Bloc who rebelled against the Kremlin by openly condemning the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968, the Western media made almost no reference to the blunder Ceausescu made during his brief honeymoon with Western powers owing to his stance against Moscow. He gravely miscalculated by accepting funding – $13 billion of it – for his country from the International Monetary Fund, which unfortunately turned out to be the main underlying cause for Romania’s economic woes and his ultimate downfall. Yet my generation of the Cold War was duped by a single narrative of his monstrous nature through books such as “Windmills of the Gods” by Sidney Sheldon. One could spend this whole column citing books and movies churned out to badmouth communism, even before analysing the complex role played by Radio Free Europe.
Socialism came to pass in my country, Ethiopia, after being propagated during Mengistu Hailemariam's 17-year reign, without me ever fully understanding the tenets as expounded by Karl Marx. I also have a hard time understanding globalisation and market liberalisation, despite its prominence in the wake of Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history”. However, I do understand the common feature both systems share. Both unabashedly disseminate propaganda about achievements of development. In socialism, development is invariably expressed in terms of rising production, while globalisation’s success is shown in stocks and bonds. In addition, the harbingers of development differ. In socialism, it’s state media that breaks the good news; in globalisation it’s corporate media that bring you the good news, as well as the illusion of freedom of speech. My personal experience of globalisation as an urban dweller informs me that you may have Internet access without electricity and you may have taps without any running water. On the rare occasion you do have them, you cannot afford the bill.
In other words, globalisation is a system where a smart man can live in genteel poverty until he’s unable to stand it. Socialism was paranoiac of anything foreign to the extent of making contact impossible; globalisation, on the contrary, means all sorts of knick-knacks are imported to your doorstep, giving you the false belief that you too can export your produce to countries around the world. But sometimes you realise the fruits to be had from globalisation are largely available only north of the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. Even the dogs and cats owned by Westerners can travel the world, but the door is shut tight against you. Then it dawns on you that the only beneficiaries in your country are the ones who declared globalisation – just like socialism was declared without your consent. Either you resign yourself to your fate or you revolt like the Maghreb people. Therefore, it’s my perception that the uprising is not directed only against home-grown dictators. It’s also a rejection of imperialism that came through the backdoor, after buying respectability in the form of globalisation.
In the Western world, the culture does not allow societies to trade off basic human rights for the sake of “stability” – not on such a large scale, anyhow. In fact, Americans quote Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty, nor safety.” When it comes to Africa and the Middle East, we are supposed to postpone our demands regarding fundamental human rights on account of stability. Extremists and religious fundamentalists have become perennial scarecrows. And yet it’s in a totalitarian system that brooks no space for dialogue that extreme views find fertile ground to grow. Whether it’s out of disdain or ignorance of other people, it’s also a folly that the Western world, particularly the US, invariably commits in its hegemonic foreign policy. Propping up a regime like Hosni Mubarak’s without a serious attempt at reforming it should not have been undertaken after the example of Shah Pahlavi of Iran.
Now that the concerted action of the people’s power has shown its potency, I am of the opinion that Egyptians shouldn’t back down by settling short of their original aims. With Mubarak overthrown, it's time to concentrate on ensuring that all their objectives are followed through. After all, Egypt has offered many geniuses to the world. The country isn't short of brains that can navigate it through a peaceful transition out of the jaws of a doddering dictatorship. FAM
Kiflu Hussain is an Ethiopian refugee, currently living in Uganda. He has contributed articles to the Ethiopian newspapers and the Ugandan press.