By Azad Essa
Demonstrations are continuing across the Middle East, interrupted only by the call for prayer when protesters fall to their knees on cheap carpets and straw mats and the riot police take a tea break. Egypt, in particular, with its scenes of unrelenting protesters staying put in Tahrir Square, playing guitars, singfing, treating the injured and generally making Gandhi’s famous salt march of the 1940s look like an act of terror, captured the imagination of an international media and audience more familiar with the stereotype of Muslim youth blowing themselves and others up.
A non-violent revolution was turning the nation full circle, much to the admiration of the rest of the world.
“I think Egypt’s cultural significance and massive population were very important factors in ensuring media coverage,” says Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of Global Voices, an international community of online activists.
“International audiences know at least a few facts about Egypt, which makes it easier for them to connect to news there,” he says, drawing a comparison with Bahrain, a country Zuckerman says few Americans would be able to locate on a map.
Zuckerman also believes that media organisations were in part motivated by a “sense of guilt” over their failure to effectively cover the Tunisian revolution and were, therefore, playing “catch up” in Egypt.
“Popular revolutions make for great TV,” he adds. “The imagery from Tahrir square in particular was very powerful and led to a story that was easy for global media to cover closely.”
The African Egypt versus the Arab Egypt
Egypt was suddenly a sexy topic. But, despite the fact that the rich banks of the Nile are sourced from central Africa, the world looked upon the uprising in Egypt solely as a Middle Eastern issue and commentators scrambled to predict what it would mean for the rest of the Arab world and, of course, Israel. Few seemed to care that Egypt was also part of Africa, a continent with a billion people, most living under despotic regimes and suffering economic strife and political suppression just like their Egyptian neighbours.
“Egypt is in Africa. We should not fool about with the attempts of the North to segregate the countries of North Africa from the rest of the continent,” says Firoze Manji, the editor of Pambazuka Online, an advocacy website for social justice in Africa. “Their histories have been intertwined for millennia. Some Egyptians may not feel they are Africans, but that is neither here nor there. They are part of the heritage of the continent.”
And, just like much of the rest of the world, Africans watched events unfold in Cairo with great interest. “There is little doubt that people [in Africa] are watching with enthusiasm what is going on in the Middle East, and drawing inspiration from that for their own struggles,” says Manji.
He argues that globalisation and the accompanying economic liberalisation has created circumstances in which the people of the global South share very similar experiences: “Increasing pauperisation, growing unemployment, declining power to hold their governments to account, declining income from agricultural production, increasing accumulation by dispossession – something that is growing on a vast scale – and increasing willingness of governments to comply with the political and economic wishes of the North.
“In that sense, people in Africa recognise the experiences of citizens in the Middle East. There is enormous potential for solidarity to grow out from that. In any case, where does Africa end and the Middle East begin?”
The ‘trouble’ that started in Tunisia (another African country) when street vendor Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation articulated the frustrations of a nation spread to Algeria (yes, another African country), Yemen and Bahrain just as Hosni Mubarak made himself comfortable at a Sharm el Sheik spa.
Meanwhile, in darkest Africa, far away from the media cameras, reports surfaced of political unrest in a West African country called Gabon. With little geo-political importance, news organisations seem largely oblivious to the drama that began unfolding on January 29, when the opposition protested against Ali Bhongo Odhimba’s government, whom they accuse of hijacking recent elections. The demonstrators demanded free elections and the security forces duly stepped in to lay those ambitions to rest. The clashes between protesters and police that followed show few signs of relenting.
“The events in Tunisia and Egypt have become, within Africa, a rallying cry for any number of opposition leaders, everyday people harbouring grievances and political opportunists looking to liken their country’s regimes to those of Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak,” says Drew Hinshaw, an American journalist based in West Africa. “In some cases that comparison is outrageous, but in all too many it is more than fair.
“Look at Gabon, a tragically under-developed oil exporter whose GDP per capita is more than twice that of Egypt’s but whose people are living on wages that make Egypt look like the land of full employment.
“The Bhongo family has run that country for four decades, since before Mubarak ran nothing larger than an air force base, and yet they’re still there. You can understand why the country’s opposition is calling for new rounds of Egypt-like protests after seeing what Egypt and Tunisia were able to achieve.”
Elsewhere on the continent protests have broken out in Khartoum, Sudan where students held Egypt-inspired demonstrations against proposed cuts to subsidies on petroleum products and sugar. Following the protests there on January 30, CPJ reported that staff from the weekly Al-Midan were arrested for covering the event.
Ethiopian media have also reported that police there detained the well-known journalist Eskinder Nega for “attempts to incite” Egypt-style protests. In Cameroon, the Social Democratic Front Party has said that the country might experience an uprising similar to those in North Africa if the government does not slash food prices.
“There are lots of Africans too who are young, unemployed, who see very few prospects for their future in countries ruled by the same old political elite that have ruled for 25 or 30 or 35 years,” says CSM Africa bureau chief Scott Baldauf.
“I think all the same issues in Egypt are also present in other countries. You have leaders who have hung onto power for decades and who think the country can only function if they are in charge. A young Zimbabwean would understand the frustration of a young Egyptian.”
Divide and rule
Sure, the continent is vast and acts of dissent and their subsequent suppression are the bread and butter of some oppressive African states. But just as self-immolation was not new in Tunisia, discontentment and rising restlessness is not alien to Africans. In the past three years, there been violent service delivery protests in South Africa and food riots in Cameroon, Madagascar, Mozambique and Senegal.
But whether the simmering discontent in Africa will result in protests on the scale of those in Egypt remains to be seen.
“All the same dry wood of bad governance is stacked in many African countries, waiting for a match to set it alight,” says Baldauf. “But it takes leadership. It takes civil society organisation,” something the CSM Africa bureau chief fears countries south of the Sahara do not have at the same levels as their North African neighbours.
Emmanuel Kisiangani, a senior researcher at the African Conflict Prevention Programme (ACCP) at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa, believes the difference in the success levels of protests in North and sub-Saharan Africa can be attributed in part to the ethnic make-up of the respective regions.
“In most of the countries that have had fairly ‘successful riots’ the societies are fairly homogenous compared to sub-Saharan Africa where there are a multiplicity of ethnic groups that are themselves very polarised. In sub-Saharan Africa, where governments have been able to divide people along ethnic-political lines, it becomes easier to hijack an uprising because of ethnic differences, unlike in North Africa.”
‘Where is Anderson Cooper?’
Egypt and Tunisia may have been the catalysts for demonstrations across the Arab world, but will those ripples spread into the rest of Africa as well and, if they do, will the international media and its audience even notice?
“What the continent lacks is media coverage,” says Hinshaw. “There’s no powerhouse media for the region like Al Jazeera, while European and American media routinely reduce a conflict like [that in] Ivory Coast or Eastern Congo to a one-sentence news blurb at the bottom of the screen.”
Hinshaw is particularly troubled by the failure of the international media to pay due attention to events in Ivory Coast, where the UN estimates that at least 300 people have died and the opposition puts the figure at 500.
“With due deference to the bravery of the Egyptian demonstrators, protestors who gathered this weekend in Abidjan [in Ivory Coast] aren’t up against a military that safeguards them – it shoots at them.
“The country’s economy has been coughing up blood since November, with banks shutting by the day, businesses closing by the hour and thousands of families fleeing their homes,” he continues. “And in all of this where is Anderson Cooper? Where is Nicolas Kristof? Why is Bahrain a front page news story while Ivory Coast is something buried at the bottom of the news stack?”
The journalist is equally as disappointed in world leaders. “This Friday, Barack Obama publicly condemned the use of violence in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. When was the last time you saw Obama come out and make a statement on Ivory Coast? Or Eastern Congo? Or Djibouti, where 20,000 people protested this weekend according to the opposition?
“The problem is that most American media compulsively ignore everything south of the Sahara and north of Johannesburg. A demonstration has to be filmed, photographed, streamed live into the offices of foreign leaders to achieve everything Egypt’s achieved.”
Nanjala, a political analyst at the University of Oxford, suggests this journalistic shortcoming stems from journalists’ tendency “to favour explanations that fit the whole ‘failing Africa’ narrative”.
Filling a void
So with traditional media seemingly failing Africa, will social media fill the void?
Much has already been written about the plethora of social media networks that both helped engineer protests and, crucially, amplified them across cyber-space. Online-activists, sitting behind fibre optic cables and flat screens, collated and disseminated updates, photographs and video and played the role of subversive hero from the comfort of their homes. Of course, not all Tweets or Facebook uploads came from pyjama-clad revolutionaries far from the scene of the action – an internet-savvy generation of Egyptians was also able to keep the world updated with information from the ground.
“It’s not clear to me that social media played a massive role in organising protests,” says Zuckerman. “[But] I do think it played a critical role in helping expose those protests to a global audience, particularly in Tunisia, where the media environment was so constrained.”
So, could the same thing happen in Africa?
“I think it’s important to keep in mind that African youth are far more plugged in than most people realise. The spread in mobile phones has made it possible for people to connect to applications like Facebook or Twitter on their telephones,” says Nanjala, adding: “At the same time, I think most analysts are overstating the influence of social media on the protests.
“The most significant political movements in Africa and in other places have occurred independently of social media – the struggles for independence, the struggles against apartheid and racism in Southern Africa. Where people need or desire to be organised they will do independently of the technology around them.”
Baldauf concurs: “In every country you see greater and greater access to the internet and greater access to cell phone networks. I remember getting stuck on a muddy road in Eastern Congo, out where the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] controls the mining industry. We had to stay the night in a village, the guests of a lovely old man in his mud hut. It was [at] the end of the world, but to get a phone call off to my wife and my editor, I just had to walk out of the hut and use my cell phone.”
An important year
2011 is an important year for Africa. Elections are scheduled in more than 20 countries across the continent, including Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
But as food prices continue to rise and economic hardship tightens its grip on the region, it is plausible to imagine Africans revolting and using means other than the often meaningless ballot box to remove their leaders.
“What people want is the democratisation of society, of production, of the economy, and indeed all aspects of life,” says Manji. “What they are being offered instead is the ballot box.”
But, Manji adds: “Elections don’t address the fundamental problems that people face. Elections on their own do nothing to enable ordinary people to be able to determine their own destiny. ”
This, according to Kisiangani, is because “the process of democratisation in many African countries seems more illusory than fundamental”.
Gabon, Zimbabwe, even Ethiopia may never have the online reach enjoyed by Egyptians, and the scale of solidarity through linguistic and cultural symmetry may not allow their calls to reach the same number of internet users. But this does not mean that a similar desire for change is not brewing, nor that the traditional media and online community are justified in ignoring it.
Screens were put up in Tahrir Square broadcasting Al Jazeera’s coverage of the protests back to the protesters. It is difficult to qualify the role of social media in the popular uprisings gaining momentum across the Arab world, but it is even more difficult to quantify the effect of the perception of being ignored, of not being watched, discussed and, well, retweeted to the throngs of others needing to be heard.
Ignoring the developments in Africa is to miss the half the story.
“The protests have created the ‘hope’ that ordinary people can define their political destiny,” says Kisiangani. “The uprisings … are making people on the continent become conscious about their abilities to define their political destinies.”
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This article was originally published on Al Jazeera English