The Historic North African People’s Uprising and Its Implication for American Foreign Policy Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

February 17th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

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. (more…)

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

  1. Zerayakob Yared
    | #1

    “The US, in fact should send a clear signal to democratic forces around the world, including to those in Uganda, Ethiopia, ….”

    Very right demand. Of course theoreticaly. I also wanted to be member of those democratic forces of Ethiopia around the world. But in my research i couldn’t find any in the last 3000 years history of Ethiopia, until the day of 17.02.2011. All the wars and fights from A-Z are only for power.

    ግን’ከስ ተጠንቒቐ ስለዘይደለኹ’ውን ክኸውን ስለዝኽእል, እንድሕር ኣሊኡ ኾይኑ ሓደራ ኣፍልጡኒ ኢኹም በጃኻትኩም:: ንስኻትኩም’ውን የለን ብሃልቲ እንድሕርኮይንኩም,ምእንታን ንኽነብርስ ክግበር ዝግብኦ ነገራት ኹሉ ንኽነከናውን ይግብኣና::

    የቐንየለይ !

  2. Gash Polisu
    | #2

    Dear professor,

    thank you for enlightening us on ME, Arab and African geographical locations.

    But when it comes to US foreign policy, I have no illusion that the US will risk losing its autocratic allies by supporting dubious and shaky democratic experminets throughout Africa and the dormant Arab world. Obama had no choice but to pretend to support the people’s voice as he was caught off guard. Besides the stage drama about America’s support for people’s aspirations, there were rumours that the US attempted to eclipse the protest though it was overwhelmed by the tidal wave of the protesters’ anger.

    The real movement must come from within and so called opposition leaders should stick to high standard of descipline. It takes hard work and broader consensus among our opposition forces to defeat TPLF. We have seen it, at least after 2005, that no matter how big the number of petition letters or demonstrators infront of the White House, US has no regard for democracy and human rights respect in Ethiopia and elsewhere in africa.

  3. derese
    | #3

    Indeed Dr G Araya
    The US best interest will be well served by supporting democratization. Any benefit driven from dictatorial regimes always fosters negative feeling towars US. In Ethiopia democratization will obly bring more stable and long lasting benefit bor both Ethiopia and the western world. Therfore, time to to tell Meles, your time is up, follow Mubarek and Ben Ali

  4. Peta de Aztlan
    | #4

    Good article above, esp. for those of us in the United Stats as I am. I see the US Government as a fascist state and as such do not really care about helping the people. Their main occupation is to stay in power and secure. They look at recent events in North Africa mainly from what is in the corporate interests of the USA. We will do what we can here in the USA to help raise consciousness. I am glad we have Internet Power in these times to help build bridges of understanding amongst all of us.
    ~Namaste, @Peta_de_Aztlan on Twitter

  5. Anonymous
    | #5

    Thank you Prof Ghelawdewos for your characteristically knowledgeable article offering important historical perspectives to some of these democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle east while ably delineating the nature of these historical upsurges.
    It is gratifying to witness that one after the other,dictatorships which have been propped up by the U.S administration and Europeans are now tumbling down pushed by these heroic popular upheavals.

    The Western powers who have always said they stand for and promote democracy and the rule of law are yet again challenged to do away with their Realpolitik and show to their own peoples and the wider world that they mean what they say.

    So,are they really putting their money where their mouth is?

    In this connection,Philip Stephens of U.K’s FINANCIAL TIMES-18FEB 11,under the title ‘TIME TO SPEAK TO A BIGGER AUDIENCE’ strikes a chord with the message of your article by aptly commenting,

    ‘The notes and coin of western influence in the Middle East have been bribery and coercion.As the region wakes up to democracy,the west needs another currency.Autocrats can be bought and bullied.Peoples must be persuaded…One of the more obvious lessons of the toppling of Mr Mubarek’s regime was that the revolution belongs to Egyptians.The experts who assured Mr Obama that the Egyptian president would weather the storm misread events because they SAW THE WORLD AS IT USED TO BE.DEALS WITH GENERALS ARE YESTERDAY’S STORY.THE WEST NOW HAS A BIGGER AUDIENCE.The spread of popular unrest to Bahrain,Libya and Iran carries the same message.There are big differences between each case.While the U.S and Europe happily cheer those on the streets of Tehran protesting against the ayatollahs,they are less comfortable about the demonstrations of their Shia cousins in Bahrain.What unites the protests,though,is THE DEMAND FOR HUMAN DIGNITY WELL BEYOND THE CONTROL OF OUTSIDERS….’.

    Indeed,Ethiopians,too,demand to live in dignity being freed from U.S and British propped up dictatorship of Meles’s ethnic minority regime.

  6. Assta B. Gettu
    | #6

    The chaotic, meaningless, and frightening screams and shouts from these worthless Arab Muslims who use to communicate their blood-thirsty Allah by mingling their Friday’s prayers with their bloody revolutions to achieve a bloody result after they have been in peace with their Allah-appointed Arab-Muslim dictators for centuries under the blessings of their war veteran – Allah – have deafened my ears for almost a month, now.

    Democratic or non democratic, terrorist, or non terrorist, violent, or non violent, Arabs will never stop from discriminating other Black Muslims or from mistreating the Ethiopian maids who work in the Arab-Muslim world. When the Arabs shout every Friday for democracy, denounce their Muslim leaders, and demand the prime minister or the king to step down from power, they are not asking equal treatments under the law for all the foreigners working there under the oppressive Arab-Muslim governments.

    These pietistic Arab-Muslim demonstrators are asking more democracy to completely subjugate the defenseless foreign workers, deny their hard-earned wages and prevent them from leaving their employers by confiscating their passports and by withholding their wages.

    We should not deceive ourselves any Islamic democracy, new or old, will treat all its citizens humanely: The new Egyptian Arab Muslim democracy will not be different from the old Hosni Mubarak’ democracy in treating the Egyptian minority Coptic Christians by giving them a permit to build a Christian Church in Egypt in a timely manner; therefore, all the shouts for more democracy, for more openness, for more transparency, and for more power sharing we hear every single day in the Arab-Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and other Muslim nations are pure transgressions against the core teachings of Islam.

    We know, in democracy, any person has the right to accept or reject any faith of his own choice, and he will not be condemned for his won action. On the other hand, in Islamic democracy, once a person is a Muslim by choice or force, he cannot leave Islam if he wants to. If he does, he will be killed (Quran 4:90).

    In Islamic democracy, women don’t have the same status as men have: “The testimony of a woman is half that of a man” (Quran 2:282). Concerning inheritance, “The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females” (Quran 4:11). Frustrated, disturbed, and dismayed by the mistreatment of Muslim women, Aisha, the child-wife of Muhammad, once said to her abuser, Muhammad the prophet: ‘You have made us equal to the dogs and the asses’ (Muslim 4:1039).

    In this case, if the Yemenites, the Libyans, the Tunisians, the Egyptians, the Bahrainis and the rest of the Arab-Muslim countries are shouting for real democracy not only to improve their economic lives but to respect the dignities of the Muslim women and the foreign workers, then they have to delete certain Quranic verses such as Quran 4:90 and Quran 4:11.

    As far as Muslim women are not treated the same as Muslim men, then Muslim democracy these young Arab Muslims are advocating for to achieve is incompatible with Western democracy, and there will never be a real democracy in the Arab-Muslims world. It would be appropriate then for all young Arab Muslims to shout for the abrogation of certain Quranic verses considered great hindrance to the true democracy rather than to shout to bring down some corrupt Arab-Muslim authorities.

    Let the corrupt Arab-Muslim leaders, with some of their corrupt Quranic verses, go down to hell, and let genuine democracy flourish in the Arab-Muslim world!

  7. Paul Remi Ademola Bøgholm
    | #7

    The problem is not what we feel the north africans should call themselves but the question is what they think of themselves. And North Africans regard themselves as ” arabs ” and not africans. Yes you can say they are africans by geography nobody will denie that, but that does not make their culture, language, religion ” African”. Just look at the way black people are threated in the Arab world. Arabs from North Africa consider themselves as part of the Arab world just look at speeches by Nasser of Egypt in the 50ies. He wanted to spread arab civilization to the “African jungles” as he said. It can be confussing, I would admit, to make distinctions between culture and geography. But just because black americans are 80% African in DNA does not make them African. It is a continent where most of them have never been before. And what about the case of the Afrikaners in South Africa. They were originated in Holland, France and Germany? They thought of themselves as Europeans, but they were actually a kind of White- European Africans! And you mentioned the berbers. Well, they are an old original north african people but they are not black some of them are even blonde. But today you can find arabized berbers and berberized arabs! The black sub saharan influence is there in North Africa but it is not the strongest influence, it is the arab culture.

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