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The Wave of Popular Uprisings Has Washed Beyond the Middle East

The tide of revolutions that rocked Tunisia and Egypt has stirred uprisings from Morocco to Libya, but it hasn’t been limited to the Middle East. In places as far south as Cameroon, as far east as China, and even westward to the budget demonstrations in Wisconsin and Europe, people are demanding reform. 

Members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, WOZA, march through the streets of Harare. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

There’s more to these uprisings than the now-familiar images of fresh-faced youth tweeting away despots, too. Revolutionary sparks have emerged in regions often viewed as too fractious, too apathetic, or too uncivilized to rise up.

So has there been a convergence of pro-democracy ideals around the world, particularly in the Global South? Or have localized grievances been swept into a romantic zeitgeist of reform? What’s clear is that the movements are both unique and related. Though the protesters are remarkably diverse in their backgrounds and goals, they’re tied to the project of broadening the very definition of democratic change.

Viral Revolution

The evolving Jasmine Revolution, as the Middle East uprisings have been called, has helped seed a broad spectrum of aspirations.

On the West Bank, the issue is not just conventional electoral politics but true self-determination and recompense for generations of massive displacement.

To the east, even the seemingly rock-solid one-party state of China has buzzed in recent days with a mysterious viral campaign for mini-Jasmine rallies in several cities. It’s an uphill battle: aside from the perennial tinderboxes of Muslim and Tibetan minority territories, the state has proven adept at quashing dissent since the Tiananmen Square massacre (a grim counterpoint to the triumph at Tahrir Square). Nonetheless, there are signs that tech-savvy, educated youth, having achieved a modicum of middle class stability, are increasingly focused on the expansion of civil and personal rights.

Though sub-Saharan Africa is known for political turmoil, like the chaos now playing out in Cote D’Ivoire, shockwaves from the north seem to be galvanizing oppositioin Benin, Djibouti and Cameroon.

Meanwhile, Sudanese youth have rallied online and in the streets to express frustration with the North-South secession process and the economic marginalization wrought by the military government.

Activists in Swaziland are looking north as well. Sikelela Dlamini, a leader of the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) movement, said in an interview with Pambazuka:

Ultimately, the economic crisis will make everyone stop, look, listen, and possibly act as well. People are already unhappy and there is a lot of uncertainty. No anger or frustration must be wasted. We must channel it to the collective agenda for regime change, almost the same way it happened in Tunisia and Egypt. 

Against a backdrop of poverty and disenfranchisement, opposition in tiny Gabon is mounting a surprisingly strong challenge to the ruling party. Gloria Mika, a diaspora activist and founder of the Pan-African advocacy group Les anges gardiens du Gabon (Gabon’s Guardian Angels for Transparency) told Global Voices, “We have the chance to witness a historical movement, given what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. We hope today to be able to find the trigger element [for Gabon].”

Unfortunately, some protests are more ready for prime-time than others. Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices writes that since unrest in Gabon has received scant international media attention, to the protesters’ peril, “The world … is emphatically not watching” as the regime crushes the nascent opposition.

Lesser-known movements like these aren’t necessarily lacking in political sophistication, though. The Women Without Walls Initiative in Nigeria is pushing not just for basic civil rights but for gender justice throughout civil society. Taking the North African and Middle East uprisings as a template, they seek government action on what they say is a wave of murders of women and children that officials have ignored. According to the Lagos Daily Independent, Esther Ibanga, a coordinator of the Initiative, is organizing the women’s movement to force government to address the needs of women and children in crisis areas:

We firmly believe that the time has come for women to come together in unity, and to present a common front for the attainment of a common goal—to individually and collectively work for peace in our land, and to demand and pursue the protection of precious human lives and property, without any discrimination whatsoever.

Teachable Movement

Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe might have thought it had silenced the opposition with its brutal crackdown in 2008. But on Feb. 19, socialists and trade unionists drew wrath of authorities with a peaceful gathering to merely view footage of Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrations. It was one of several opposition actions striking back at the state’s tightening grip in the wake of the North African unrest. Paradoxically, the Tahrir effect became even more apparent when the activists were rounded up and charged with treason,prompting outrage throughout the diaspora. The main act of “treason” was apparently the title of their event: “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?”

So what lessons can we learn? We can start by resisting the impulse to read simplistic explanations out of a diverse spectrum of popular movements. The recent uprisings do not derive their power from a common agenda or strategy. What they share is a sense of openness and possibility, spontaneity and resilience, and a deep belief that violence and factionalism are toxic to that revolutionary potential.

Recalling the rise of Pan-African and Pan-Arab movements during the Cold War, Nicolo Gnecchi at Red Pepper argues that the “common, anti-colonial bond that unified the Arab and African liberation struggles of the last century … must now be resuscitated.” But today’s uprisings aren’t mere revivals of yesterday’s post-colonial struggles, according to Kenyan political commentator Nanjala Nyabola. Reflecting on the recent protests in some sub-Saharan countries, says the movements actually reveal a growing nationalism in the region.

“I don’t think that this is a democratisation, human rights or even a pan-African phenomenon. I think that in many ways what we’re witnessing is more about the fulfillment of the nationalist [ideal]—in a positive sense rather than the negative sense that it’s used when discussing European politics,” says Nyabola. “People are finally seeing themselves as full members of their national communities and claiming rights from their governments on that basis.”

The triumph of grassroots resistance in Tunisia and Egypt is challenging because it is at once old and new. From the Bandung conference to dismantling of apartheid, Third World activism has always grafted principles of democracy over indigenous social and economic struggles.

Tragically, the post-colonial fervor in many countries, including Libya, quickly spiraled back into dictatorship, parochialism and brutality.

If they succeed, the new movements will face familiar perils of factionalism, economic inequality and ethnic tension as they develop more concrete political visions and institutions. But what might separate these emerging movements from their predecessors is that they recognize the continuity between past and the present, local and global, and that all uprisings have something to teach and to learn from each other.

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