Why, when millions turned their social-media avatars green for the Iranian democracy movement last year, and we all followed events in Egypt and Tunisia avidly over the past few weeks, are some other popular movements for freedom completely ignored?
Zuckerberg cites Gabon as an example, and it’s a great one. Few media have covered this ongoing story. A notable exception – the one that proves the rule – is the Christian Science Monitor. (A brief conversation with its indefatiguable Africa editor, Scott Baldauf, contributed to the thoughts explored in this column.)
I don’t pretend to have a complete answer, but I’d like to make a few observations.
For one, the media has a lot to answer for. It has been abjectly following where the amateurs of Twitter and Facebook are leading. With the exception of Al Jazeera, who owned this story, many “real” journalists only arrived in Cairo a week after the revolution was tweeted around the world.
Granted, out-tweeting the heroes of a major revolution is hard. So is being everywhere at the same time. But that surely suggests that the professional media ought to lead in the coverage of democracy movements that, for whatever reason, do not get as much social media buzz?
The media’s failure does not answer, however, why people seem to care less about some places than others. Now that we know there are protests in Gabon, do we care? Are we following Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco as closely as we followed Egypt and Iran? No? What about Cameroon, Uganda, Nigeria, Eritrea or Senegal? Thought not.
In attempting to answer this question, one hears many superficial explanations.
The most glib is simple racism. Only light-skinned peoples garner the support of the rich world, this argument goes. There may be some truth to this, but it is also contradicted by the world-wide support for South Africa’s own liberation. Moreover, it fails to explain why the West’s reputation for Islamophobia does not appear to have the same effect. If racism does play a role, it is probably not dominant. More likely, simplistic racism rhetoric masks an underlying reason.
A more likely explanation is that the strategic significance of some countries in geo-political affairs make them bigger news. Combine the sense that it’s important, with a local population that is highly visible via social media, add the irresistible revolutionary-chic romanticism of an oppressed people overthrowing despotic rulers to seek freedom, and it stands to reason that a major uprising in an important country is a recipe for profound global news appeal.
There may be a deeper problem, however, which surfaces in some analyses of the Egyptian uprising. A common view among both the guilt-tripping elites of the rich world, and many intellectuals in the poor world who would like to externalise their problems, is that Western exploitation is to blame for all the ills against which the oppressed masses rise.
Pankaj Misrah’s column for the Guardian gives us a classic example. He talks of Egypt being subjected to the “vagaries of international capitalism”, and decries the sovereign debt piled up by autocratic rulers (as if lenders alone carry responsibility for the financial straits of borrowers).
He writes: “Egypt’s nascent manufacturing industry stood no chance in an international economic regime whose rules were rigged in favour of free-trading Britain. At the same time, early modernisation in Egypt had also unleashed new classes with social and political aspirations that could not be fulfilled by a despotic regime beholden to foreigners.”
After a few more broadsides against British imperialism and distinctly unfree misrepresentations of “free trade”, Misrah quotes Jawaharlal Nehru: “Democracy for an Eastern country seems to mean only one thing: to carry out the behests of the imperialist ruling power.”
The facile self-contradiction between these two paragraphs – that both autocracies and democracies do the bidding of foreign imperialists – goes unnoticed and unremarked. Yet it undermines the entire premise of the piece: that the foundations of despotism lie in the exploitative relationship with colonial powers.
The narrative that the West is to blame for the economic ills of poor countries is a powerful one. It has sufficient basis in truth to resonate with the people. Examples like Leopold II’s rape of the Congo, the Spanish exploitation of Latin America, or the racist oppression of South Africa, are all too frequent.
But the narrative also meshes neatly with the despot’s propaganda, that he should be respected as a paternal protector who liberated his people from the oppression of greedy foreigners.
This may be why many uprisings merely substitute one despot for another. The sense that the overthrow of a strong-man is unlikely to lead to real freedom is particularly strong in Africa, and has made the outside world jaded about news of pro-democracy protests. Recasting this cynicism as Afro-pessimism or racism masks the sad fact that it is rooted in bitter experience.
Moreover, the analysis that seeks to blame external factors for a country’s ills avoids the uncomfortable fact that in most modern cases, the full burden of responsibility for a free and prosperous future now lies with the people themselves. Even if past grievances are justified, indulging them does not improve prospects for the future.
A common factor in the uprisings that have engaged the world’s attention has been a bold – often brave – use of social media to circumvent the restrictions on free speech that every autocrat requires to keep organised revolution at bay.
South Africa’s own liberation predated such instant communication, but after the demise of the Rand Daily Mail, media outlets such as the Weekly Mail, New Nation, South, and Vrye Weekblad bravely kept the flame of free expression and self-belief burning in ordinary South Africans.
There was a strong sense during the transition years that we were all in this together, and that nobody was going to fight the freedom fight for us. The protest media gave South Africans confidence and strength. The international visibility it offered consisted of an image of a united front opposing the authoritarian police state to make South Africa a better place. This is a key reason South Africa’s fight for liberation resonated so deeply around the world.
Likewise, one gets a sense that the boldness of social media protestors today is the result of a powerful feeling that shaping the future is up to each individual, and that failing to exercise that power amounts to abject surrender to kleptocrats, theocrats and warlords.
As we watched Egyptians show their long-time autocrat the door, the power they demonstrated was awesome. What caused goose-bumps, however, was the pure class with which they wielded their power.
Besides patriotism and bravery, the reports from demonstrations around Egypt were peppered with anecdotes of touching demonstrations of unity across religious lines, and of volunteer cleaning crews tidying up after each day’s protests. A profound self-respect gilded the glorious battle for liberty that played itself out on the streets of Egypt.
Freedom marches on through the pages of modern history. As it does so, the self-respect, self-reliance and self-belief that marked Egypt’s demonstrations lie at the core of successful uprisings. These form the basis for any serious claim to individual liberty, and at the same time command the outside world’s attention and admiration.
People who are unable to speak out, or to take the responsibility for their conditions, will be led. Their periodic complaints will largely be ignored, and enough potential autocrats exist to exploit their submission. They merely reinforce jaundiced cynicism and disinterest.
But when people declare proudly that they can and will shape their own future, they garner the support and solidarity of the world. They lay the social foundation for economic prosperity. Successful uprisings are about standing up and denying the despot the ability to blame anyone else for the misery he inflicts on his people. DM
PS. The answer is Andry Rajoelina, a popular DJ who in 2009, at the tender age of 34 and with the help of the army, grabbed power in Madagascar from Marc Ravalomanana. An attempted military coup against him failed late last year. Although there’s a roadmap to peace involving yet another hackneyed proposal for power-sharing, Rajoelina is still happily imprisoning opposition members for attending illegal protests, and the ousted party headed by Ravalomanana remains in exile.