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Thursday, May 3, 2012, 4:37 pm

African Studies Scholar Says Continent on the Threshold of Major Transformations

By Rebecca Burns

While the dramatic revolts that began in Tunisia last year have inspired uprisings across the world, Dr. Horace Campbell notes that there is a telling omission to the narrative of the “Arab Spring”--many of its events have taken place in Africa. “People have taken what's happening in North Africa out of Africa,” said Campbell, Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University, during a lecture yesterday at Northwestern University. Instead, he argued, political change taking place across the Arab world should be viewed in light of the transformations occurring across the African continent and a “confluence of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism”.

The occasion for the lecture was the anniversary of Toward Freedom, a Chicago-based newsletter that has covered world events from a progressive perspective for 60 years. Toward Freedom was one of the only publications providing coverage of the 1955 Bandung Conference, which gave birth to the non-aligned movement, and of U.S. aid to the French army during the Tunisian struggle for independence.

More than 50 years after the official decolonization of the country, Campbell noted, its status as a one-party state where a tiny segment of the population had amassed enormous wealth sparked renewed struggle that soon spread to elsewhere in the region. “Although people act as though the process of gaining independence in Africa is finished, it is not,” he asserted. “There is a continued need to ask: What does revolution mean today?”

Campbell's answer to this question—the“new concept of revolution” represented by the uprising and overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—drew some skepticism from an audience member who asked whether Egypt had in fact accomplished a transformation of the existing order. Demonstrations against continued military rule and slow reforms have continued, and Wednesday saw the death of 12 demonstrators staging a sit-in outside the Ministry of Defence at the hands of unknown assailants. A recent report from Chatham House warned that Egypt may soon see a “second revolution” if demonstrators' economic grievances continued to go unaddressed, as well as increased fragmentation of Islamist and labor movements, in large part because of the former's continued support for broadly pro-market policies.

What the revolution in Egypt has modeled for efforts elsewhere, according to Campbell, is an “astute study of nonviolence” that prevented last February's demonstrations from turning into a broader conflict between armed parties as occurred in Syria and Libya. Moreover, the lack of hierarchy within the protest movement, and its ability to neutralize the army's hierarchy by pulling in sympathetic low-ranking members, have disproven the need for a vanguard party and bolstered ongoing demonstrations after the overthrow of Mubarak. Mubarak's departure has also re-energized the the fusion of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism—a project that had its height under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who helped spearhead the growing alliances between Arab and African nationalist movements, but was stamped out during a period of close relations between the Israeli security establishment and the Mubarak regime.

Though struggles political change and self-determination in Senegal and Mali have received less attention, Campbell sees them as linked to the revolutions begun in Egypt in Tunisia, and to a broader shift in “peoples' conception of what is possible” across the continent. In particular, the uncertain fates of both the dollar and the euro have opened up new possibilities for a unitary currency in Africa, the subject of ongoing discussions by regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), that could put an end to the foreign exchange crises that have forced African states into accepting austerity packages from international financial institutions.

Citing Mao Zedong, however, Campbell reminded of the upcoming challenges on the continent: “Revolution is a process, and the process has just begun.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times assistant editor based in Chicago, where she also covers labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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