By Farooq A. Kperogi
In the well-justified triumphalism that has greeted the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, we all seem to have deadened our historical consciousness to the consequences of popular revolutions. Almost without exception, the gains of revolutions are often too fleeting to be worthy of the emotional and intellectual energies invested in them.
Let’s start from close home. Uthman Dan Fodiyo’s religious revolution in the 19th century was inspired, among other things, by the urge to purge northern Nigerian Islam of a decaying, oppressive monarchy and the syncretism of idolatry and Islam that defined public life at the time. But the precise conditions that Dan Fodio and his followers fought to uproot have returned in newer, more vicious forms.
His successors have constituted themselves into a parasitic, profligate, patrimonial monarchy—in contravention of the spirit and letter of leadership in Islam where knowledge and consensus, and not heredity, are the bases of leadership. Were Dan Fodio to return today, he would certainly wage another revolution against his heirs.
Similarly, the liberatory afterglow of the Russian Revolution lasted only a few years. From Josef Stalin onwards, Communist Russia was just as oppressive and as primitive in its cruelty as the Tsarist era it extirpated.
And the emancipatory effects of the Iranian Revolution have all but evaporated now. It has been replaced by suffocating clerical despotism, repression, and paranoid leadership. I have more than a dozen Iranian friends, one of whose fathers was, in fact, a leading light in the Revolution. They are all now thoroughly disillusioned. They complain that their country, like ours, is wracked by unspeakable corruption and cronyism, and burdened with an insecure, insensitive, and out-of-touch leadership. Now, the youth of the country want another revolution to flush out the beneficiaries of the earlier revolution. A potentially explosive ferment is brewing there as I write this column.
I can go on, but the point I want to make is that revolutions historically do no more than replace one set of oppressors with another. The emergent beneficiaries, of course, at first sound radical and refreshingly different and make the right noises and spout the noblest sentiments. They may even radically overhaul the system for a while and succeed in inspiring a renewed sense of purpose and direction in ordinary people. But shortly after, the reversal would set in: the revolutionaries become indistinguishable from the reactionaries they overthrow.
In the case of Egypt, it’s an even worse scenario. What happened in Egypt wasn’t, properly speaking, a revolution. It was merely a rebellion. Like in Tunisia, disparate resentments quickly coalesced into a mass resistance, then blossomed into a protest, and culminated in a rebellion without ever achieving the status of a revolution. In a revolution, a vanguard takes ownership of the rebellion and uses it as a ladder to climb to substantive power. But all that the popular rebellion did in Egypt—and in Tunisia earlier—was to overthrow the public face of an oppressive power structure while leaving the power structure itself intact. The outcome, if you ask me, is hardly worth the effort.
I know this is a very cynical take on a heroic and historic event that has captured the imagination of the whole world. But it doesn’t hurt to inject our mushy effusiveness over the “triumph” of the Egyptian masses with a little dose of reality check. If even real revolutions—where a vanguard of fighters takes over power—are often customarily no more than a flash in the pan, why should we be overly optimistic of a rebellion that merely scratched the surface of an entrenched, well-coordinated power structure? Mubarak has only been replaced by the military which, in any case, has always been the power behind the throne. Nothing, really, has changed.
But more than all this high-minded pontification about the Egyptian “revolution,” for me, is the question of the racial politics of the country itself. While the Arab majority cries for freedom, justice, and equality from their central government, the country seethes with a regressive, racist culture that dehumanizes its minority black population. Yet black Africans are exulting in vicarious excitement over the “success” of the Egyptian “revolution.”
An article by an Arabic-speaking African-American Muslim convert by the name of Sunni M. Khalid titled “Does Egypt Have a Race Problem?” reveals the sordid, soul-depressing anti-black bigotry that is rampant in the Egyptian society. I can’t recapitulate the whole article here, but three things he related from his experiential encounters in Egypt struck me. First, he says—like many before him—that back women are stereotyped as prostitutes in Egypt. Should black women find themselves in certain companies, according to Khalid who is so light-skinned that he is often mistaken for an Egyptian, “Carloads of Arab men drive by, hanging out of windows, shouting catcalls, or making loud demands for sexual favors.”
Khalid is married to a dark-skinned Kenyan-Somali Muslim woman. One day, while eating at a posh restaurant with his wife, he said, a bevy of Egyptian women accosted him and said to him in Arabic, “Don't you know better? How dare you bring a woman like that into a place like this?"
The second thing that struck me in the article is the public ridicule that Egyptians habitually subject dark-skinned people to. One way they do this, according to him, is to gratuitously ask black Africans what time of the day it is. When they look at their wrists to tell the time, the Egyptians would laugh boisterously and then vamoose. “This was apparently done so that the sub-Saharan Africans would look down and be reminded of their dark-skinned wrists, where their watches might be,” Khalid wrote.
While in Egypt, Khalid came across a group of northern Nigerians studying in various Egyptian universities. They shared with him their heart-breaking experiences of racial oppression. I am going to allow his narration to run without my intervention:
“‘I learned something much different from what I believed,” said Bala, a native of northern Nigeria and a graduate student at the American University in Cairo, who lived in Egypt for six years. “I thought [the Arabs] were our brothers in Islam, but they don't bother about that when you're black. ... They pretend that you are a brother in Islam, but this is different from what they hold in their hearts and in their minds.’
“He told me that for many Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, the spiritual solidarity with Egyptian Muslims was misplaced. ‘I was coming out of masjid [mosque] in a place called Dar-el-Malik,’ Bala said. ‘So we used to say “Salaam” to one another when we came out of salat [prayer]. There was one child, called Mohamed, and we were used to shaking hands with him. And one day, I came out to shake his hand and he refused. He told me his father told him never to shake hands with a Sudani -- that is black. So he is telling me his father told him he cannot say, 'Salaam,' to any [Africans].’
“Through Bala, I met other African students, including some who were studying at al-Azhar University, with the hope of returning to their native lands as imams and religious scholars. Some of the students told me that they experienced racism within al-Azhar to such an extent that they eventually renounced their vows as Muslims.”
Don’t even get me started on the indigenous black population in Egypt, the Nubians, who have lived in that country thousands of years before Arabs invaded the place in the 8th century. The Nubians have literally and figuratively been pushed to the margins of the Egyptian society and rendered invisible.
So why should I celebrate Mubarak’s overthrow when people who look like me will never benefit from the gains of the revolt—if there ever will be any?