African Lessons for the Arab Spring

Photograph: John Moore/Getty. From the Guardian.

This week, the renewed Egyptian unrest has presented a grim warning to the hopeful revolutionaries in Libya.

As the NATO-backed NTC moves to solidify control over Gaddafi’s last strongholds, it is manifestly clear that Gaddafi’s regime is done for. What is far from decided, however, is the course that the country will take once the bullets have stopped flying.

Across the Arab world, we can see divisions beginning to emerge – ‘religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya‘. The Egpytian military, which has still not set a timetable for the installation of a new president, may be buying time for itself by stirring up, or failing to prevent, unrest. It is a dangerous time; we are a long way yet from the Arab Summer.

I argued last week that NATO was engaged in a war of regime change in Libya, and that the West must treat it as such. It is crucial, right now, to understand that the structures that ensure stable democracy – the free press, apolitical military, impartial judiciary, a constrained executive and a strong civil society – do not exist in Libya. When autocratic power structures survived Egypt’s ‘elegant revolution’, they risked hindering democratic progress. Libya’s revolution was anything but elegant, but the levelling of these governance structures may pose greater difficulties.

These institutions need time and political space to grow. European nation-states are much like the pyramids: they are grand, strong, and seemingly timeless. They were also the product of much injustice, toil and misery. The impressive veneer conceals the oppression and bloodshed. British democracy was built on centuries of strife and resistance. If you want to see the consequences of imposing a prefabricated state design on unstable foundations, look no further than Iraq.

But Libya is not Iraq; this was a revolution, driven from the inside. The Arab revolts appeal to something that is close to Western hearts – the idea of national identity built on citizenship. The Libyan people want a state they can call their own. It is a very powerful idea. It is also an idea that is not well established in the political culture of most countries.

In Europe, where anti-Gaddafi sentiment finds its focal point, nation-states were forged through, in Bismarck’s words, ‘iron and blood’. They were created by and for the waging of war. The guiding rule was survival of the fittest. By this brutal Darwinian logic, states that worked swallowed up states that didn’t, and were then dissolved by states that worked better, until, after centuries of war, something roughly resembling equilibrium emerged.

Most post-colonial states, however, were granted, or won, their independence on the basis of colonial borders. These were imposed by administrators in London, Paris and, to a lesser extent, Brussels and Berlin. Little regard was paid to ethnicity, culture, tribal geography, or any other metric on which a state should be created. One such nation-builder wrote in 1921 ‘I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq’.

Human allegiances and identities were never going to be accommodated within straight-line boundaries drawn with rulers. Edinburgh is not a part of England, and cannot be made so with a stroke of a pen.

These unnatural state configurations are today ‘locked in’, an unfortunate consequence of the (relatively modern) idea that you aren’t allowed to invade and enslave your neighbour. Strong, functional states today shield weaker brethren.

This is like putting up steel struts in your garden shed: However much effort you put into supporting the old structure, the roof is still rotten through. When you can no longer support it, it will collapse, and the innocent people inside will pay the price. Western troops will not be stationed in Kuwait forever.

The ‘imperial carve-up‘ is an inheritance that any post-war administrator in sub-Saharan Africa must think of constantly. It must also be remembered after the Arab Spring. Local power structures were displaced by ill-fitting European politics, and new ones struggle to develop in unnatural frameworks. The export and entrenchment of the European model means the nation-state is a fiction in much of the world, but the perceived alternative is conflict and instability.

In times of crisis, however, systems change. It is crucial to note, then, that the choice between nation-states and instability is misleading. There is nothing inevitable about nation-states. In Africa, there is significant support for supranational union, of which Muammar Gaddafi, the so-called ‘King of Kings‘, was a fierce proponent. In the Arab World, where the memory of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphates is strong, we may well witness a similar trend.

Pan-Arabism may offer the region stability, with historic communities reunited and free from extraneous threats, and prosperity, in the form of bargaining power in international trade. It also amplifies the need for strong democratic checks and a settlement with Israel. In Europe, integration made war between states unthinkable; it remains to be seen whether it can do the same for war within states.

Such developments are impossible to foresee, especially in this age of communication. Whatever the outcome, we must stop talking about reconstruction in the Middle East as if legitimate democratic institutions exist, and we must be careful not to hold up European political organisation as a model. Europe prospered because it developed its own political system, not because it developed this political system. The European nation-state is best left just that: European.


About Chris Berkin

Political Journalism MA, City University London. @Chris_Berkin

Posted on October 11, 2011, in Foreign Affairs. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. You mention (and don’t cite) that there is considerable support for a supranational union in Africa. This is confusing. The biggest hope in this regard is/was the AU, which has seen conference attendance drop to the point where any hopes for it have been dashed. It became dominated by South Africa, Libya and Nigeria – and the key support for it came from individuals, the majority in those three countries, who saw themselves becoming statesmen and as such of Africa. It also had very little to do with Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of Pan-Africanism for which there was reasonable support at one time, seeing as it eschewed nation-building and the belief that a united group needed a single language, culture or voice.

    There is support, however, for regional economic institutions, such as ECOWAS, ECOCAS and the SADC, though again these are dominated by regional major players.

    I would be interested to read your thoughts on the recent Zambian election, in which the anti-Chinese candidate defied some expectations to take a narrow victory in a country where Chinese business interests are rapidly exceeding. Indeed, related to my earlier points, perhaps one of the most powerful supranational organisations that exists in Africa today (though it fits the bill as a supranational organisation very loosely – perhaps a lobby group is more pertinent) is FOCAC.

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