Notes on Africa: Facebook, Egypt, Tunisia, and “the rest of us”

IF you pay (too much) attention to African voices on facebook, you become aware of the nagging fear of disorder: anarchy is being unleashed in Egypt, some say; a “revolution” is all well and good, others say, but it needs a “plan.” “Change” is a fine sentiment, but where is the “strategy for going forward?” So development-minded are we that we cannot contemplate political movements without carefully written agendas. Simultaneously, we demonstrate our own truncated forms of knowledge and awareness.

Buying into the myth of “spontaneous” revolutions “caused” by “twitter” and facebook,” we skip the labor of thinking and activism in Egypt and Tunisia, the people we may not know, though at times we know of, who have been thinking about and planning different ways of living and acting, different practices of belonging and governing. We forget that the “now” always has a history. As I think (incoherently) about Tunisia and Egypt, and, more precisely, about our reactions to them, I am struck by these two things: the development imaginary and the revolution’s amnesia.

I am struck by the conservative fear voiced by those who believe in incremental change–fire one corrupt minister, break one big scandal a year–but worry about “anarchy,” about the change that would disrupt the social order, re-order it in unexpected ways, make the “return to normal” strange and impossible. I am struck by how many of those voicing such fears term themselves “progressive,” because every so often they “defend” gay rights and lament about corruption–both restricting the radical potential of gay rights by framing it as a special right and naming an impossible abstraction, corruption, that at once names everything and nothing, as it straddles economic and moral acts.

Tunisia and Egypt are being transformed into “freak” occurrences, hinged on the randomness of a young man setting himself ablaze. This “randomness” runs up against the well-laid out plans devised in elaborate seminar rooms; the training sessions on “how to be an activist”; the professionalization of activism across Africa into an NGO-funded or at least affiliated project. We forget, conveniently, that NGOs are interested in their own social and economic “reproduction,” or sustenance. (This “reproduction” can be traced by following the career trajectories of the many people who move from one NGO to the next, following the money, and, secondarily, the “cause.”)

Anyone who has applied for NGO funding knows the importance of “outcomes,” even as those outcomes are simultaneously material and abstract—by doing x (building a bridge, buying a goat, providing haircuts, distributing condoms, spreading information about distributing condoms), the residents of x specific area will be “empowered.” But such “outcomes” become the justification for the reproduction of structures and strategies—dig one well and you get more money to build another well, and the satisfaction of knowing you are “making a difference” in places where “governments have failed.”

The development imagination of strategies and outcomes is as far away from revolutions and real political change as possible, especially as it has become one of the most important sites for producing and reproducing the African NGO middle class, a powerful group whose continued existence and prosperity depends precisely on small nudges, never huge shifts.

This development imagination, highly trained and regimented, staffed by people who can write proposals in their sleep, and who speak, alarmingly, in the same jargon of “capacity building” and “gender empowerment” and “strategic deployment” and “mobilizing resources,” this development imagination cannot make sense of Tunisia and Egypt. And it is scared of the “anarchy” such places represent.

A friend on facebook writes about the “orientalization” happening in U.S. and European press—I am struck by the silence of many African leaders who recognize themselves in Mubarak.
From this side of diaspora, I am equally struck by “revolution porn,” the proliferation of images circulating in the U.S. and Europe, to which “supportive” people “over here” comment, “you go, girl!” and similarly troubling statements. They are troubling in the assumptions they bear, in their making “spectacles” of whatever is happening in Tunisia and Egypt. I write this hearing Fanon’s warning about “white” fondness for “black” anger.

One person writes about an Arabic sign, on facebook—“I don’t know what it means, but I am sure it is something great.” Statements such as these are part of what make me think about “revolution porn,” about the “pleasure” of spectacle divorced from the more messy, time-consuming, less pleasurable labor of listening and reading. (I am being unfair, of course, in suggesting that those I critique—and parody—are not deeply engaged with Tunisian and Egyptian causes.)

Certainly, too much is happening all at once. Even those who are monitoring twitter feeds and other such sources must try to piece together fragments, try to tell “stories” whose narrative pull must be used and resisted—narrative organizes and flattens. This “too much” also produces its own affective pulls. From some voices, I hear fears of “anarchy” and “messiness,” unsubtle forms of orientalizing Egypt and Tunisia, subtended, at times, by a virulent Islamophobia. From others, I hear celebration, even when images display bleeding bodies—and this last, that someone would “like” an image of mourning women is simply too much to take.

As difficult as it is, we must try to listen better to the range of voices around Egypt and Tunisia—often, these will not be so-called “experts” on the region. Often they will not speak in languages we understand. Often, their demands will not match what we want them to be. And, of course, our own desires for Egypt and Tunisia, for political and social change, and for political and social equilibrium, will shape how we listen and respond.

We Africans must also pay attention to the nature of the demand embodied by Egypt and Tunisia, one that extends beyond the strange compromises of “power-sharing” now understood as “imperfect solutions.” Something significant is happening. Something our outcome-driven agendas have no way of understanding or anticipating.

EDIT: I had not read Aaron’s thoughtful post before I posted. Take a look.

4 thoughts on “Notes on Africa: Facebook, Egypt, Tunisia, and “the rest of us”

  1. I like this post, but I find myself thinking that the lesson of Egypt and Tunisia for us is that proper revolutions carried forward must of necessity be prepared for, even that we must anticipate revolution-inviting opportunities that we’ve not brought about ourselves.

    This isn’t to say that the Egyptians and Tunisian opposition movements didn’t do so, but even those who prefer to chip slowly away at repressive power must be persuaded from the Maghreb’s example that there’s every possibility that the old order crumble before we believe the pressure we’ve applied is sufficient to topple it, that an edifice of power now tall and resolute and resistant may crumble into dust tomorrow.

    I’m impressed that the Egyptian and Tunisian people, unlike Kenyans for example, aren’t deceived into thinking that Mubarak or Ben Ali are their problem. Well at least the ones on Al-Jazeera aren’t. They’d like a broader sweeping aside of the old order.

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