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The Historic North African People’s Uprising and Its Implication for American Foreign Policy

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

February 16, 2011

The momentous people’s uprising of Tunisia and Egypt caught off guard peoples and nations around the world, and now clearly these upheavals have not only gripped the global community but they also seem to have wider ramifications in North Africa and the entire Middle East.

Before I delve into the causes of the uprisings and discuss their implication for American foreign policy, however, I like to demystify the misconceptions surrounding the ethnic composition and geopolitics of North Africa. In order to divulge the North African countries and peoples from the rest of Africa, Western institutions and media have deliberately concocted the ‘Arab and Middle East’ concepts. There is no doubt that Arabic is the lingua franca for the North African nations and the people are predominantly of Arab origin, but it is abundantly clear that Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are African countries. It is also true that the indigenous people that are still in existence in North Africa are the Berbers, and in some places the Tuareg. Why do we then have this disinformation that negates the location and ethnic composition of these African nations? On top of this misconception, we have this axiom that defines the North African nations as part of the Middle East, a hopelessly meaningless geopolitical concept. How is it possible that Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are located in the Middle East when in fact they are in North West Africa? If we follow this logic we should then put Portugal and Spain in the Middle East. The ill-defined concept of the ‘Middle East’ is also further reinforced by another misconstrued concept of ‘Eurasia’ that meant to encompass the countries on either side of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Ironically, the fictitious concept of Sub-Saharan Africa, also concocted by Western institutions and media, was embraced and endorsed by black Africans. What should be underscored is the fact that the North African peoples have a dual heritage of African and Arab and they are classified as Afro-Asiatic in socio-linguistic analyses. I do not have any objection if the North African people identify themselves as Arab as long as they duly recognize their Berber and other minority counterparts in their midst and are also dedicated to the cause of pan-Africanism.

Going back to the main themes and message of this essay, thus, I like to begin by arguing that uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the mass upheavals of African people that have now resonated and reverberated in other Arab countries. These uprisings compel us to constantly reassess the past, but they also enable us to come to grips with the complexity of the mass protests and relatively understand the essence and outcomes of the mass-based rebellions, although we may not figure out the definite future trajectory of the movements.

The North African uprisings, like plethora of other preceding uprisings throughout history, are not the deliberate preplanned actions of people. The human-agency-cum-peoples uprisings are indeed inseparable, but uprisings don’t happen by design; they just occur, and when they come no force can stop or deflect them because, in most instances, the impetus behind the upheavals are a combination of fragile and/or weak political systems and an angry people that have forged unity against the manipulative, tyrannical, coercive, and authoritarian regimes.

At the initial stage of the uprisings, the dying regimes had shown arrogance and even attempted to change the course of the peoples’ movements. They used police force to break the moral of the insurgents without fully understanding the course of history and arrogance coupled by ignorance blinded them and they miscalculated the peoples’ resolve. But when they saw the perseverance of the united masses, the dictators had to flee and run for their lives and that is what exactly Ben Ali of Tunisia and Husni Mubark of Egypt did. Other dictators have acted in the same manner throughout modern history and examples are abounded: Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu of Congo, Duvalle of Haiti, Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto of Indonesia and Mengistu of Ethiopia.

The North African uprisings, however, are not social revolutions as wrongly depicted by the media. They are essentially different from revolutions. The latter are relatively organized and enlightened men/women and/or political parties with ideologies lead them, and good examples of this category are the American Revolution for independence, the French Bourgeois Revolution, and the Russian and Chinese Socialist Revolutions. These revolutions were aimed at dismantling the old order and replace it with new social and political structures. On the other hand, the North African uprisings were spontaneous upsurges and were not led by political organizations with ideologies and political program and their objective is to get rid off the regimes and not to foster new socio-political structures.

But the classical social revolutions and the North African uprisings have common denominators: They are mass-based and they are influenced by elites. Uprisings and/or revolutions cannot take place unless both the masses and the elite are affected by the social deprivations that have reached crisis proportions. At this juncture, two important socio-political events will coincide: the regimes will be unable to govern, unable to diffuse the crisis, and unable to implement tension-management; and the people will no longer abide by the old rules and they will be ungovernable. In this kind of scenario, the elite plays a vital role, as for instance in the 1911 Chinese Revolution and the aristocratic revolt that triggered the French Revolution. Likewise, in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases, although there were no nominal leadership and the vanguards were amorphous, elite circles like the Revolutionary Youth Alliance in Egypt have coordinated the performance of the protestors by communicating with the different political groupings. The distinct advantage of the North African uprisings anonymous and informal leaders over the leaders of the classical revolutions is the fact that they were able to use the latest digital technology in communication, and it is not surprising that the mass upheavals are dubbed ‘Face Book Revolutions.’

Why did these two uprisings took place in Tunisia and Egypt and subsequently spread to neighboring countries of Algeria, Libya, and other Arab states? A brief background of North African political economy is called upon in order to better grasp the nature and characteristics of these historic upheavals.

Tunisia is a small country of only ten million people and after it gained independence from France in 1956, its first president, Habib Bourguiba, implemented a mixed economy program supplemented by pragmatic foreign policy, and as a result relative stability had been maintained in the country. However, by the mid-1980s, the economy was in crisis and the people of Tunisia were tired of a one-man one-party rule despite a too little too late initiative on the part of the government to allow a multi-party system. In fact, clandestine revolutionaries and radical Islamic forces protested in demonstration and were able to create havoc to the very foundation of the regime and subsequently, Bourguiba was ejected out from office and he was forced to resign and retire in 1987.

Habib Bourguiba was replaced by his then Prime Minister Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and the latter took immediate measures to calm down the angry Tunisians. He freed political prisoners and allowed political dialogue and the people were satisfied and even extended support to the new regime. By 1988, the old Bourguiba ministers were ousted and replaced by new ministers; and by 1989, for the first time in three decades since independence, a multi-party election was conducted but because it was characterized by fraud, Ben Ali was declared the winner. The pattern of rigging the electoral process was repeated in 1994 and again it was officially announced that Ben Ali was the winner and it was after this election that Zine Ben Ali consolidated political power and entrenched himself in the state apparatus and became a full-fledged dictator. However, under his dictatorship, again some relative stability was secured in Tunisia because the regime successfully implemented its new economic policy of export-oriented market that, in turn, boosted the overall economy and expanded industry, agriculture and tourism.

Tunisia under Ben Ali was a good example of a developmental state that could score some reform to appease the people but could not become an agency of transformation and bring about fundamental socioeconomic and political changes. And once the recurring economic crisis, exacerbated by inflation and higher commodity prices resurfaced, the regime encountered the erstwhile rebellion of the people and it could no longer withstand their uprising and that is why Ben Ali had to flee in the face of determined protestors.

The cause for the Egyptian popular uprising is essentially the same with that of Tunisia because both were governed by tyrannical regimes and both were engulfed by endemic economic crisis that directly affected the stomach of the multitude poor and the wallet of the middle class. Egypt, however, is much bigger than Tunisia and its population is eight times higher than that of Tunisia. Egypt also has relatively sophisticated civic and political institutions, including the most robust elite army in the entire Africa.

After the Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk in 1952, the agenda of the first republic was to reconstruct Egypt, expand educational and health services, make Egypt an industrial wealthy country independent of foreign aid, and most importantly, make Egypt a regional military power. Nasser’s foreign policy was marred by eclecticism and as a result, Egypt was sandwiched between the West and the East. Eventually, Nasser and his Arab Socialist Union party forged alliance with the East, in particular with the Soviet Union, and adopted a state run economy, including nationalization of industry and other major assets in the economic sector. Immediately after, the IMF confronted the Nasser regime and before Egypt could deal with the latter’s pressure, the 1967 six-day Arab-Israeli war broke out. The latter two exogenous factors greatly affected the economy of Egypt; the country was inundated with sky rocketing commodity prices. By the early 1970s, however, Egypt began to recover the economy and reform the political system in favor of a Western-style democracy of a multi party system. Egyptian politics was no longer the monopoly of the Arab Socialist Union; other parties like the Progressive Nationalist, Social Democratic, and the Nasserite Party were legally recognized.

Moreover, in 1978, president Anwar Sadat founded his own political party known as the National Democratic Party (NDP) and allowed one opposition by the name of Socialist Party to be organized by one of his ministers, Ibrahim Boukre. Sadat actually deliberately designed the dual party system in order to systematically emasculate other opposition forces such as the Nasserites and as expected, in the June 1979 election, the President came out victorious. Sadat laid the cornerstone of a one-party rule and the opposition resented him and he was even more disliked by the general public when he signed the Camp David Peace Accord with Israel and he was shot and killed by his won soldiers in 1981.  

Husni Mubark, who succeeded Sadat, thus, became the strong man of Egypt and ruled his country by outlawing the opposition parties, enforcing curfew, and manipulating the state vehicle for his own private interest. Contrary to what the Egyptian constitution stipulates on democratic pluralism, Mubark’s party, the NDP, became the only viable party in the country. In point of fact, between 1977 and 2006, some 24 political parties were registered but none of them were able to run against the NDP and contest and challenge the legitimacy of Mubark’s rule.

Mubark, like most dictators, had underestimated the initial outburst of the people and the resolve of the militants at Tahrir Square, but when he knew that his days were numbered, he had to yield to the people’s avalanche. He is now gone, but we must be cautiously optimistic about the future of Egypt, although the likelihood is Egypt is going to be transformed via democratic process.

The spark of mass upheaval has now spread all over North Africa and the Middle East and in Algeria and Libya the protestors may not easily dislodge the dictators, and confrontations between the police and the people could be bloody, but in the long run democracy could triumph in the entire North Africa and the rest of the continent.

What is the implication of the North African uprising for American foreign policy? How should the United States respond to the Shellacking (Obama’s surprise exclamation) that has already driven out two dictators from North Africa and may have a domino effect elsewhere?

I am of the opinion that the United States can no longer afford to support dictators and sustain their rule, although it is understandable (but may be not morally acceptable) to deal with autocrats in the context of real politic. Despite America being the bastion of democracy and the hope and pride of liberal political culture, the country was unable to transplant it elsewhere in the world and it is due to the simple reason that realism is deeply entrenched in American foreign policy parameters; and the ubiquitous dictum, ‘America has permanent interests and not permanent friends,’ is cajoled to the point of meaninglessness.

 Because the United States employed realism as the basic tenet in its foreign policy for so long, the social reality of other societies that aspire for democracy was largely mystified to the extent that democratic forces in developing nations were either considered not dependable or not trustworthy. America indeed made some modification in its realist policy by embracing the ‘hegemonic stability theory’ paradigm, an admixture of realist and neo-liberal policy, but the latter in fact should have been considered as an important factor in shaping its foreign policy. Unlike the realist paradigm, which does not offer any conflict-resolution methodology, the liberal paradigm is a readily available vehicle in preventing or resolving conflicts through peaceful means. Realism is concerned with state-state relations while liberalism is interested in state-state, state-people, and people-people relationships. Unlike realism that is concerned with the security of a state by military or the use of force, the liberal school supports collective security of all nations and people through international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations.

The United States, as one of the founding members of the UN, is no stranger to the concept and practice of collective security. Therefore, the popular uprisings in North Africa should not be viewed as a challenge to the United States; on the contrary, they should be perceived as a golden opportunity for America in finding new democratic friends in Africa and elsewhere. If the United States is serious in reformulating its foreign policy spectrum in such away to accommodate democratic regimes and no longer appease dictators, it should uphold what political scientists call ‘global level of analysis,’ in which state and non-state global actors find common ground and work together.

The US, in fact should send a clear signal to democratic forces around the world, including to those in Uganda, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Sudan, the Arab countries, that it will support them in their struggles for democratic transformation.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2011. Dr. Gheladewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org