By Larbi Sadiki
Ennahda’s Tenth Congress in May 2016 was a leap of faith into re-endorsing the movement’s historical leadership as well as learning to ‘Tunisify’ its specific brand of Islamism – or whatever is left of it. The stakes are high, and so are the challenges lurking ahead. At a historical juncture of intra-Islamist divisions from Morocco to Egypt over matters of substance and organisation, and parallel divisions among secularists, Tunisia’s Islamists seem to favour the contest of power over the contest of ideology: policy is now primary; ideology is secondary.
Have they ‘killed’ Muslim Brotherhood ideologues Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and the late Hassan Al-Turabi, and prominent Shi'a religious leaders Imam Khomeini and Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah – all iconic ideologues whose writings stamped Islamist dogma with the dictum that Islam is ‘din wa dawlah’ (religion and politics)? Tunisian Islamists, like their Moroccan and Turkish counterparts earlier, seem to have rethought their ideas, which have postulated the inseparability of Islam and politics for almost a century.
Ennahda’s resolve to finally put to bed the conundrum of religion and politics, by declaring their separation at its congress, may be a turning point in the movement’s thirty-six-year history that amounts to a ‘second founding’. But the move is not necessarily motivated by tactical manoeuvring; ‘civic habituation’ is a moderating force too.
Neo-Political Islam and the primacy of practical knowledge
Three key observations are in order here.
First, the tendency today by Islamists in places such as in Morocco and Tunisia to ‘separate’ religion and politics – or, more aptly, to de-emphasise religion in their brand of politics – speaks to the failure within political Islam to translate theoretical ideals, agendas and knowledge into a convincing and satisfactory practice in terms of political behaviour and civic engagement in many Arabo-Islamic settings. There are qualified exceptions; Turkey and Malaysia may be imperfect examples but both function well.
Second, separation of religion and politics by Islamists subverts the original paradigm: instead of moving from theory to practice, the new trend that focuses on the experience of political Islam has the potential to inform theory-building. Perhaps the practice of political Islam at the level of the state will eventually enable deeper appreciation of the theoretical potentialities of Islam as a religion. This will help incorporate practical knowledge into the organisation of politics by Islamists who are informed by theories that have thus far eluded application. Reconciling this ‘contradiction’ is a huge challenge for Arab politics in general. It is easy to pontificate about an ideal – such as social justice or its ethical foundations – as do many Islamist theoreticians, postulating it as an indispensable virtue of Islamic democracy or governance. It is a greater challenge to apply it as integrally part of lived Islam.
Third, the tendency today to separate religion and politics may bode well for levelling the playing field. The interpretation of religion ceases to be the exclusive bastion of righteous voices whose missionary zeal in some settings may have turned them into self-appointed speakers on behalf of ‘Islamic correctness’. No one reserves the right to claim the moral high ground and dictate what religion in the public sphere should and should not mean.
The Tunisian context
Islamism is not going away. Scholars from John Esposito and John Volli to Khaled Abou El Fadlii have confirmed this axiom. It is, however, the dogma that underpin the various Islamisms vying for attention in the Muslim world that should be under close scrutiny or is subject to tactical shifts or rethinking. Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori view ‘Muslim politics’ as involving ‘the competition and contest over both the interpretation of religious symbols and the control of the institutions that produce and sustain them’. Consequently ‘Muslim Politics’ is a sophisticated analysis of the ever-changing correlation between the sacred and the profane in the Muslim world.
Eickelman and Piscatori advance the idea that the politics of language that embed the expression and organisation of Muslim politics must be ‘deconstructed’. The Muslim world has witnessed a process of ‘objectification of consciousness’, a process sparking fundamental questions in the minds of believers. This objectification has come about as a result of mass education and wider channels of communication within the Muslim World, rendering exegesis widespread.iii Tunisia, like other countries that experienced uprisings in 2010-2011, is today awash in contestation over meaning in politics, religion and culture. It is a facet of maturing pluralism, civic engagement and freedom.
Political Islam or Islamism is simply refashioning itself according to the exigencies of time and space. Old conundrums are being tackled head on, and Tunisian Islamists are not exempted from this process. In his recent book Young Islam, Avi Spiegel, referring to Morocco, makes relevant points to those pondering the state of play within Islamism.iv Taking a leaf from Eickelman and Piscatori about how ‘Muslim politics’ is lived, Spiegel considers political Islam in practice, in the way it is operationalised, especially by the younger generation of activists, dealing with a huge lacuna in research on Islamism.
Spiegel makes two important points when accounting for transformative processes within Islamism.
First, that Islamist-Islamist relations inform behaviour and thinking more than external factors. This is more relevant to Morocco than Tunisia because Morocco’s Islamism is more dispersed and plural, with competing versions of Islamism, including establishment Islamism, competing for influence in the monarchy’s ‘public sphere’. Tunisia’s Ennahda has been shaped by its relationship to the state (which Spiegel says is not the case in Morocco). A brand of secular nationalism led by Tunisia’s first post-independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, provoked Islamists into opposing the suppression of Tunisia’s Islamic identity and heritage in nation- and state-building. Ennahda today argues that the question of identity no longer divides Tunisians. It is doubtful whether Ansar al-Shari'ah,v the violent extremist group designated as a terrorist organisation by Tunisia and much weaker now than three years ago, has forced policy rethinking within Ennahda.
Second, that the separation of al-siyasi (civic activism or politics) and da'awi (religious or proselytisation activities) has been in the offing within Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD). Using the example of Abdelali Hamiddine, amongst others, Spiegel shows how there is a separation between the religious movement (harakah) and the political party.v This is the direction Ennahda has just taken.
Ennahda’s emerging brand of rethought Islamism provides a more open engagement in the socio-political sphere after the democratic reforms that routinised the Islamist party as a major stakeholder in Tunisia’s fledgling ‘public sphere’. This brand of civic Islamism that slots the political and the religious into two different compartments works in tandem with increasing civic engagement, contest of power, a power-sharing record since 2011, and massive investment in the professionalisation of the party.
Concomitant with its new status as a power broker in Tunisian politics, Ennahda engages with deeply entrenched leftist and secular forces through both dialogic (including alliance with secularists in government in 2011 and currently) and concessionary means. Ennahda has adopted a declaratory policy of deference to the state when it comes to the management of mosques – leaving them as venues of worship. It has also supported current plans to re-educate imams and professionalising their functions. This may also be a defence mechanism at a time when the state is eager to counter terrorism and overall religious radicalisation, especially amongst youth.vi Religiously-inspired actors in the Muslim world are trying to define themselves in opposition to the likes of the Islamic State group (IS); Ennahda is no exception in this narrative pitting ‘moderates’ against ‘radicals’.
Distinguishing between the fixed (al-thabit) and the mutable (al-mutaghayyir) may explain Ennahda’s attitude towards the state. Politics, the party argues, belongs to the sphere of the changing. I propose that there is a public utility or ‘maqasidi’ framework at play here, and that exigencies and necessities of the Tunisian context have influenced this move.
In the Tunisian national milieu, Ennahda is also probably responding to the misgivings of its detractors that it conceals a secret theocratic agenda; that once in power it will impose dictatorship. The shift is intended also to pre-empt criticisms from liberals and secularists that it does not respect Tunisia’s political identity. Ennahda can now claim it is transcending politics of identity.
The plan to refashion Ennahda as per the movement’s Tenth Congress can be summed up in the following areas:
It commits to a civic state (dawlah madaniyyah), which rethinks earlier Islamist positions to make shari'ah (Islamic legal system) the law of the land.
It moves away from the revivalist brand of Islamism by locating itself as a national actor sharing political space with other power claimants and contestants. The old claim by Muslim Brotherhood movements that ‘Islam is the solution’ is no more (even though Ennahda never really used this motto).
It redefines Islamism as approximating ‘political ethics’ rather than ideology that informs political ends in the contest for power. In this sense Ennahda attempts to become post-ideological in a quasi-‘end of ideology’ moment.
It embraces the market unambiguously. This position breaks with earlier Islamist reservations about capitalism (Sayyid Qutb is a leading voice in this regard, with Islam’s social justice being a key tenet of his political thought). Ennahda’s discourse after the uprisings also embraced social justice.
It renounces moralisation in the social realm in a society which is ninety-nine per cent Sunni Muslim. This aims to end the pursuit of da'wah or religious propagation by the newly-professionalised political party, and to end its monopoly over interpreting religious dogma – much less endeavouring to implement it.
Where Ennahda is concerned, the fundamentals that defined Muslim Brotherhood-type movements (such as ‘the Quran is our constitution’; ‘jihad is our method’) no longer apply in any evaluative (normative) or practical (political) sense.
Like Islamist parties in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Sudan, Ennahda is undergoing a phase of ‘civic habituation’. Islamists today are faced with having real power, reversing past practices when they were excluded.vii Moderating policy and political behaviour may thus not be just tactical or ephemeral. The party has a fixed constituency and following (sympathisers and members) that secure it political visibility and prominence, though not always as the winning party as was the case in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It has gained kudos, status and know-how that deepen civic habituation. Before the uprisings, Ennahda was at the receiving end of the dictatorial proverbial ‘stick’. Now its political fortunes have improved and with that come increased legal participation, recognition of the political system, legitimacy, and shared power.
As a stakeholder, Ennahda is now concerned with self-reproduction – via the contestation of power, effective political strategies and responsive public policy platforms. Ideology ceases to be a guiding force, even if in the minds of many members and the wider Islamist transnational community the separation of religion and politics may seem heretical. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) showed how contest and acquisition of power play a moderating role, thus informing incipient civic habituation. Most MB groups conducted a de facto separation following the Arab Spring; the Egyptian MB, for example, founded the Freedom and Justice Party, open to members and non-members, which accepted the civil state and political pluralism, at least in theory.
Adaptation is the name of the game: the challenge to measure up to the demands of pluralism, freedom and democratic transition through constant training in the art of politics. That is, finding a shared space for engaging self and other through clear messages, legal and democratic strategies, shared values and rallying multipartisan objectives. Thus Tunisia’s Islamists may contribute in a practical sense to a form of ‘Islamic democracy’, an oxymoron for many of their detractors.viii In fact, as so-called Arab liberals continue to fragment or are slow at self-reforming,ix it is legalised Islamists that seem to be turning the learning curve of democratic government.
Of course, it is moot whether civic habituation through increased participation as a result of the adoption of the separation of religion and politics produces radicalisation or deradicalisation within society. It is undeniable that there is demand for a role for religion in political affairs in Tunisia, as in many other Arab states. Abandoning a powerful tenet of Islamism may be read as a form of retreat, which may have a radicalising effect.x Nevertheless, the rule of thumb is that civic engagement spells moderation and de-emphasis of ideology, not radicalisation.
Is Ennahda renouncing ‘Islamism’, its doctrinaire sine qua non and the basis of its foundational identity? Since its emergence in the late 1970s as the ‘Islamic Tendency Movement’, identity politics – promoting the idea of Islam as an organic frame of reference for imagining polity, society and economy – has defined the movement’s declaratory policy, rhetoric, discourse and political engagement.
This template and attendant agency came at a high price: exile, imprisonment, and exclusion under both Bourguiba and his successor, ousted dictator Zinelabidine Ben Ali. Under Ben Ali, Ennahda sought accommodation and even contested by-elections, showing early indications of electoral support in the late 1980s, which made the then-dictator buckle and shift policy from co-existence to systematic exclusion and coercion. No single political current in Tunisia’s history suffered as much at the hands of Ben Ali’s police machinery.
Neo-Ennahda emerged over a three-day historic congress punctuated by fascinating and heated but pluralist debates, part of which I witnessed first hand, as a national political party with an Islamic frame of reference that deploys democracy as a mode of political engagement. To this end, Neo-Ennahda is now committing to separate the religious (al-da'awi) and the political (al-siyasi).
A vision that was upheld for over three decades has ceded to a new brand of civic Islamism. As an analogy, Neo-Ennahda has not only edged closer to the notion of a civil state, but also to Turkey’s AKP and further from Egypt’s standard Muslim Brotherhood or ‘Ikhwani’ model: the former operationalises politics with minimum ideology, the latter has historically harboured ambitions of Islamising polity.
This is why, in one of his interventions during the congress, party president Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi adopted a new discourse angled at stressing the primacy of the market, economic growth, renouncing the politics of identity (huwiyyah), elements which had been part of the fundamentals of his thought for over thirty years.
There are three interconnected motivations for the change.
First,normalisation of Ennahda with the ‘deep state’, which has preserved the imprints of Bourguiba’s political modelling of it a la Francophile: secular in nature. Tunisia’s society is similarly shaped, manifesting a deeply hybrid national persona that reveres Islam but with a bent for civic engagement of all aspects of the horizontal side of life, including politics. Ennahda is finally being intelligently and deftly adaptive, seeking a brand of ‘Tunisification’ of its identity as a major political force with a fixed thirty-five to forty percent political following.
Second,professionalisation, and this is common to all major parties anywhere as they mature politically. So by defending a new identity that separates the religious and the political, Ennahda has turned an important learning curve on the way to a fully-fledged civic political party. The amendments, all of which passed with absolute majorities of more than 800 votes, prove that several months of internal debates have come to full fruition for the party’s reformists. This includes further empowerment of the party’s Shura Council, of which 100 members are directly elected by conference, and another fifty by the Council’s elected representatives. Ennahda’s partnering in the troika government that delivered the country’s democratic constitution in early 2014 provided the party with an invaluable ‘reality check’, which it used to reflect, revise and adjust.
Third,democratisation via ‘factionalisation’: a salient feature of maturing political parties anywhere. One of the most fascinating debates and the first ever in the history of Ennahda took place on the morning of 22 May. Three leading leaders representing first and second generations took to the floor to openly contest and defend their respective views of how the party should be internally organised, led, and administered. (I am not at liberty to disclose more.) This was unthinkable before the uprisings. Ennahda’s practice of internal democracy has produced a kind of factionalisation, which may, over time, serve to reduce the huge concentration of power in the party executive. Islamist parties, like Arab secularist parties, tend to be resistant to democratic transformation in party structures and internal democracy. From this perspective, factionalisation must be seen as having a democratising effect, at least in the long term.
Al-Banna’s Islamism no more?
Surveying the state of political Islam in the aftermath of the uprisings, what is most conspicuous is the presence of a spectre of stagnation, crisis and fragmentation. From Egypt to Tunisia there are signs that there is confusion in the ‘Islamic project’ adopted since the days of Hassan Al-Banna (assassinated in 1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood ideal and model of socio-politico-moral organisation.
Morally, the flame of the ideal has not dimmed; it still lights up millions of subaltern lives. Al-Banna – and after him other like-minded iconic figures ranging from Sayyid Qutb (MB ideologue and scholar hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966) to Maulana Abu 'Ala Maududi (leading Scholar of Indian-Pakistani origin, d 1979) – made a strong case for ‘Islamic governance’. They found in Islam an organic repertoire for giving the former colonised a voice, and also the means to resist subjugation, westernisation, secularisation, moral decay, and dissolution into followers of Euro-American models of organising polity, society, economy and morality.
In a short but brilliant ‘Foreword’ to Sayyed Abul Hassan Al-Nadwi’s famous book Islam and the World,xi Qutb seconds the author’s ideas of an Islam that sanctions liberation from ‘superstitions and banalities’, ‘slavery and degradation’, and from religious and political ‘tyranny’. Islam, Qutb argues, blesses life with faith, a font of ‘knowledge, fraternity, justice and self-confidence’. These are in turn life-giving values that through hard work maximise humans potential for realising the quest for a ‘just, healthy and balanced system’.xii The genius of Islam resides in the telos of a ‘just’ and ‘balanced system’. A balanced system defuses the tension between dualisms such as God/man, this world/the hereafter, Muslim/non-Muslim (or peoples of the Book), community/individual, and theory/practice.
Qutb does not mince his words when it comes to articulating the primacy of Islam as ‘din wa dawlah’ (religion and state), and in terms of visibility and leadership in world (and worldly) affairs. He affirms that there is ‘good’ to be had when Islam assumes a leading role ‘to fashion life according to its own special genius’.xiii There is no doubt in his mind that justice and a balanced society or polity derive from Muslims leading, not following. He regards leadership as intrinsic to Islam. Moreover, he affirms that ‘proving’ and ‘testing’ Islam’s mettle obtains only when assuming responsibility. Thus in his view Islam is predisposed to ‘lead the caravan of life. It cannot be a camp follower.’xiv Perhaps this is no longer the case. Muslims, being today plugged into the international economy, integrated in an international order not of their making, and, of late, as they are being converted to the notion of separation of religion and politics, cannot be but ‘camp followers’.
The issues that shaped Qutb’s thinking more than fifty years agoxv – the ideological standoff with the ‘West’, colonial penetration, Muslim identity – do not seem to feature large in the thinking of current Islamist ideologues. Qutb found both capitalism and communism to be inferior to Islam,xvi with both steeped in materialism. Even when they valorise justice, as did communism, they expunge it of all spiritual content.
In its continuous transformation, Islamism has, thus, shifted emphasis according to time and space, oscillating between phases of confrontation and reconciliation, rejection and accommodation. Some of these shifting emphases include:
The deployment of Islam as a moral and educational medium for raising levels of consciousness and resisting colonialism;
Islam as a medium of resisting secularisation, to the point that sometimes mere political participation in ‘secular’ politics was considered heretical;
Resurgence or sahwah islamiyyah that positioned the question of identity at the heart of the quarrel with national-secular elites and states;
Islamisation of state, society, morality and knowledge, all overlapping agendas that gave rise to transnational rethought Islamisms, recognising authoritarian regimes (what the MB and the PJD did in Egypt in Morocco respectively), and approving of engaging the secular state by equating the Islamic concept of ‘shura’ (consultation) with democracy;
Islamism going hand in hand with revolution, and the emergence of Islamist resistance movements;
The Wahhabi Salafi explosion promoting literalist interpretations of Islam that spread to all corners of the Muslim world;
Intra-Salafi divisions and the rise of intellectual and radical salafisms;
Divisions within moderate Islamisms (for example, in Egypt, Jordan, Sudan), and attendant ‘rationalisation’ of Islamism through adoption of formerly rejected positions such as separation of religion and politics.
End of Political Islam? End of Ideology?
It is too early to confidently state that the shift marks the end of political Islam, because it depends firstly on how one defines political Islam. A strict ideological definition will lead to the conclusion that it is the end of political Islam, in a certain sense. But if one allows for the elasticity of ideas and practice within political Islam, then it is not, but a recognition that Islamists come in all shapes and colours: they are neither fixed nor unitary.
For me, a Tunisian who closely follows the politics of a fledgling democracy, I never cease to remind myself of the enduring legacy of Bourguiba’s secularism. It lives on, and today reshapes Tunisia, including its Islamists. Many Tunisians – including Ennahda sympathisers and members – are left with a big question: was Bourguiba right all along? This is a question Ennahda has to ponder. For, after the tragic experiences of torture, martyrs, exile and suffering, a big volte face on this issue cannot be easy. Was the suffering for nothing at all? Has Ennahda abandoned its original vision that Islam and politics belong to an organic sphere in which they are mutually reinforcing as a matter of conviction or necessity? These are questions that will not disappear for some time.
*This article was originally published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies website.
iJohn L Esposito and John O Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
iiAbou El Fadl, Khaled et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).
iiiDale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).
ivAvi Max Spiegel, Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp 177-178.
vAaron Y Zelin, ‘Tunisia: Uncovering Ansar Al-Sharia,’ p 178.
viRachid Khechana, ‘The thorns in the side of Tunisia’s young democratic process,’ Aspen Institute, 25/04/2016, https://www.aspeninstitute.it/aspenia-online/article/thorns-side-tunisias-young-democratic-process.
viiEmmanuel Sivan, ‘Why Radical Muslims Aren’t Taking Over Governments,’ Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1998).
viiiGudrun Krämer, ‘Islamist Notions of Democracy,’ Middle East Report, No. 183 (1993), pp 2-8.
ixJon Alterman, ‘The False Promise of Arab Liberals,’ Policy Review (June/July 2004).
xMichael Georgy and Tom Perry, ‘Special report: As Brotherhood retreats, risks of extremism increase,’ Reuters, 28 October 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/28/us-egypt-brotherhood-special-report-idUSBRE99R0DU20131028.
xiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’ in Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Al-Nadwi, Islam and the World: The Rise and Decline of Muslims and its Effect on Mankind (Leicester: UK Islamic Academy), p vii.
xiiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’, p vii.
xiiiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’.
xivSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’.
xvSayed Khatab, The Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb: The Theory of Jahiliyyah (London: Routledge, 2006).
xviSayyid Qutb, Al-Adalah Al-Ijtima’iyyah fi Al-Islam [Social Justice in Islam] (Cairo: Makatab Masr, 1949). See also, Sayyid Qutb, Ma’rakat Al-Islam wa Al-Ra’smaliyyah [The Battle of Islam and Capitalism] (Cairo: Dar Al-Shuruq, 1975).
By Na'eem Jeenah
Everywhere people have been fascinated with how rapidly, and with such resolve, the people of Tunisia and Egypt have overthrown repressive regimes, inspiring others in the Middle East to contemplate the same. Na’eem Jeenah gives the background to this revolt and reflects on its meaning for the Middle East and Africa generally.
Muhammad Bouazizi, a 24-year-old vendor, had repeatedly been assaulted by police in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia’s poverty belt. Police insisted he must apply for a licence. When he was last assaulted in December 2010, Muhammad could not have imagined that his desperate decision to pour petrol on himself and set himself alight outside the local municipal office would light the flames of popular anger in a way that would bring down the dictator in his country and inspire protests across the Middle East as people demanded freedom and democracy.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Tunisia’s parliament last week ratified the cabinet of the prime minister, Habib Essid, in a sign of the country’s preference for consensus building. It points to a desire for democratic consolidation, but could portend trouble for, and even fragmentation of, the ruling Nidaa Tounes party.
The cabinet comprises four parties, including the three largest parties in the legislature, Nidaa Tounes (with eighty-six seats), Ennahda (sixty-nine seats) and the Free Patriotic Union (sixteen seats). The ratification of the cabinet was a formality and over seventy-five per cent of voting parliamentarians (166 out of 204) endorsed its formation. This augurs well for Tunisians; the vast economic and security challenges the country faces requires the adoption of difficult measures, supported by a large constituency. Key amongst these is a reduction in subsidies, especially on fuel, which benefit mostly the middle and upper classes; and combating militancy without disillusioning religious Tunisians.
By Na'eem Jeenah
The revolutionary fervor that swept across North Africa and the Middle East is leaving discernible imprints on the political and social landscape of South Africa. For many South Africans, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings gave new hope for the possibilities of what could be achieved through mass action.
For a people who had engaged in a long struggle for justice and freedom , but who had subsequently become largely demobilised, the idea of a despotic government being toppled through people's power had become a distant idea tinged with the kind of romanticism that suggests it could not be replicated. That changed when other peoples on our continent,took to the streets, faced down the might of brutal security services and armed forces, and succeeded in forcing out their dictators. In South Africa, activist organizations, think tanks, and even businesses hosted events to discuss the events, and a protest was held outside the Egyptian embassy, with protesters shouting 'irhal' (Leave) as Husni Mubarak was still trying to cling to power.
As happened in other parts of the world, protesters in the small South African town of Ermelo, demonstrating at the same time as their Egyptian counterparts, began referring to the site of their protests as 'Tahrir Square'. The Ermelo protests represented one of a plethora of 'service delivery' actions throughout the country. Thousands of such protests take place every year in South Africa, with people from poor, deprived communities demonstrating against their lack of or inadequate housing, electricity, water, jobs, and so forth. At the beginning of 2011, calls for global solidarity grew in light of the universality of the complaint against service delivery- joined especially by people in the north of our continent - of people demanding more equitable socio-economic conditions, opposing corruption, and insisting that the government fulfilled its responsibilities to those who had been, and remain, the most marginalised in our society. These were people who had believed the ruling African National Congress' (ANC) promise of a 'better life for all' but became disillusioned when the ANC failed to deliver on its promises. That failure had resulted in a lack and weakness in the delivery of services such as electricity, water, and housing, as well as jobs to poor people, resulting in daily 'service delivery protests' taking place all over the country. In Ermelo, these service delivery protesters, who often face the force of the South African police, took heart and courage from those they now viewed as their fellow travelers in Egypt and Tunisia. It was as if a certain energy had begun flowing from north to south across Africa, spreading and hoping to awaken the masses of oppressed and exploited people on the continent. The uprisings also began a debate in South Africa - not yet exhausted - about whether South Africa was moving towards its 'Tunisia moment', if it did not properly address the huge challenges of poverty, inequality and lack of service delivery.
In what many in southern Africa are referring to contagion from North Africa, normally calm Malawi erupted in protests at the end of July, leaving 18 people dead, and much destruction of property. Analysts and observers in the region, and Malawian activists themselves, have been referring to these events as being part of the wave of the wave of uprisings in the north. The protests came in the wake of attempts by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to have President Mutharika's brother succeed him when his term ends in 2014, rising unemployment, and a host of other socio-economic grievances.
When civil strife broke out in Libya a few months ago, the debates took a new turn. South Africa, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, supported Resolution 1973, which called on member states to implement a no-fly zone over Libya - ostensibly to protect civilians. However, within three days, the South African government explained that it did not support the manner in which the resolution was being implemented. After NATO began providing one side in the war with air cover, bombed the country, and even tried to assassinate Gaddafi, public opinion turned against the South African government's position, and even the ruling party's youth league publicly attacked the president for the UN vote. 'South Africa voted in favour of imperialists,' said Julius Malema, president of the ANC Youth League, calling NAT action 'killing of fellow Africans imposed by our former masters.' The NATO mission had become an imperialist war whose prize was the country's oil and natural gas, and was viewed in a different category to Tunisia and Egypt.
The situation in Libya was also of concern to many South Africans. Unlike Ben Ali's Tunisia and Mubarak's Egypt, Gaddafi's Libya had made its commitment to Africa and the African Union clear - in rhetoric, involvement, and financial support. When the International Criminal Court issued its warrant of arrest for Gaddafi, not only did it undermine the possibility of a political settlement, but it also confirmed the suspicions of many Africans that Africans are particular targets for international justice.
Whatever the outcome in Libya - and there are many indications that it will result in an entrenchment of imperial, especially European, power - the effects of Tunisia and Egypt will be long-lasting in the southern part of Africa. Not only people demanding better services in South Africa, but also those demanding an end to the absolute (and brutal) monarchy in Swaziland, and those demanding an end to Mugabe's tyranny in Zimbabwe have been inspired by our comrades in the north. And while the immediate effects of the courage and determination from the north might seem somewhat muted here, the long-term effects could very well bring down one or two dictatorships down south as well.
* Na'eem Jeenah is the executive director of the Johannesburg based, Afro Middle East Centre