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Fake Revolutions: What Americans can learn from Egypt and Zimbabwe

By Siyabonga Hadebe

A massive storm of protests continues to blow across the United States after police in Minnesota killed an African-American man called George Floyd.

Zimbabweans went onto the streets in 2017 in support of the coup that removed President Robert Mugabe
Zimbabweans went onto the streets in 2017 in support of the coup that removed President Robert Mugabe

Reverend Al Sharpton argued: “George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks. Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be is you kept your knee on our neck … It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks!’”

This amounts to a rallying call by the African-American community for “real” emancipation. Floyd’s death has unearthed a new and vibrant fight for equality and freedom. Commentators are divided in their interpretation of what is unfolding in the United States. Some see it as a small storm laced with criminality that is soon going to pass. This perspective suggests noting will be gained out of the protests. The other perspective sees the riots as a revolution that is bound to result in lasting change in America.

This article also supports the narrative that the protests have potential to change the face of America. However, it sounds a caution that this may not be realised if the “revolution” gets hijacked by the “invisible hand”. Sinister groups are bound to misdirect the genuine struggle by blacks in the US after they were short-changed in the 1960s.

Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I have a dream” amounted to little change and the American structural make up stayed intact. The same conclusions have been made about Nelson Mandela’s type of freedom delivered to blacks at the end of apartheid.

The argument is that black people in America would have to take cue from the recent so-called revolutions in Egypt (2011) and Zimbabwe (2017) that brought no material changes but priests in new garbs.

Managed revolutions bring no losses and no gains in efforts to maintain the status quo. True revolutions result in losses for the deposed and major structural gains for victors, these can be material or otherwise. In both Egypt and Zimbabwe, this did not happen.

It is just more than nine years ago in 2011 since a wave of “revolutions” took North Africa and the Middle East by storm. The unprecedented chaos finally engulfed Egypt on January 25, where millions turned out in major cities across Egypt, especially in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Commentators and analysts lauded the power of social media as hashtags and selfies captured the triumphant mood.

But the government seemed to have other ideas. It did not take kindly to the protests; and tensions reached an all time high between the police and protesters in places such as Suez and Alexandria. Police used strong-arm tactics to deal with the protests ranging from violence (eg tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons) to shutting down communications. Almost three days later on the 28th, protests showed no sign of cooling down but the police had retreated.

The army replaced the police to perform the security role, and from then on the situation remained almost entirely peaceful but people were still being killed and property was torched. Al Jazeera reported that in Suez and Alexandria the military wanted to avoid an open confrontation with protesters. Crowds continued to call for Hosni Mubarak to go.

From 1981 to 2011 Mubarak had been in power, and he showed no immediate plan of allowing democratic rule in Egypt. His son Gamal appeared to be a likely successor for the presidency. This is almost similar to the Zimbabwe case, ex-president Robert Gabriel Mugabe was the country’s first president in 1980. At 93 years there was little or no talk of him going away soon after 37 years in charge. There was talk that his second wife Grace was lined up to succeed him.

In both instances the army facilitated “revolutions”. The argument is thus advanced that the military simply wanted to channel the course of political developments in the two countries to achieve their selfish ends. The army, as witnessed in Egypt and Zimbabwe, can show signs of altruism only if its intentions is to misdirect the wishes of the people. In America, however, it is unlikely that the army can play a similar role but other forces can. Already, there are many sympathizers in the streets. Though this many appear positive, the struggle must be left to African-Americans to fight.

When the protests raged in Egypt, the “revolution” took twists and turns. In an unexpected turn of events, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Minister of Defence and Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, appeared with the protesters in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Imagine former president Barack Obama leading the crowds after his two terms in the White House yielded no positive political gains for the black community in the US.

Also, former atomic agency diplomat Mohamed El Braderei, who fancied his chances to become a president of Egypt, was seen with crowds, where he said, “what we have begun cannot go back”. He went on to say, “You are the owners of this revolution. You are the future. Our key demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which each Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity.” Already the ongoing riots in American cities are poised to be used to direct presidential elections at the end of 2020. The riots are “weaponized” for short-term political gains.

In parallel, it is alleged that Mubarak was holding a meeting with military commanders, where it is said that the army was instructed to use live ammunition to deal with the crowds. As the story goes, we are told that the army refused the order since it was there to “protect the people”. Tantawi released a statement saying: “The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people. Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”

Nonetheless, Mubarak continued to hold on to power. He appeared in an interview where he declared that he was “fed up” with being in power, but refused to resign. As with many in Egypt, Mubarak openly said he did not want Egypt “to descend into a chaos in which the Muslim Brotherhood would be the beneficiaries.” Nobody anticipated what would occur to the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was later elected as the president of Egypt.

There were so many events that took place in Egypt during the political meltdown, but the turning point of the whole “revolution” when El Baradei said, “Egypt will explode” because Mubarak was refusing to go and auspiciously called on the military to intervene. Soon thereafter, Mubarak stepped down, leaving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a council of high-ranking military officers headed by Tantawi, in control.

Egyptians rejoiced in celebrations nonetheless. El Baradei screamed that “Egypt is free.” All of us believed him.

Protestors were seen climbing on to military tanks (and the soldiers were not bothered) after hearing the news of the resignation of Mubarak on the 11th February. Egypt appeared to be headed to a different direction. For example, a Palestinian reconciliation agreement brokered by Egypt was signed by Ḥamās and Fatah in Cairo. This was somehow misconstrued to suggest that Egypt no longer adheres to Mubārak’s policy of isolating Ḥamās. Egypt also threatened to withdraw its ambassador to Israel. The geopolitical landscape in the Middle East appeared to be changing, so we all thought.

The army was becoming friendlier. As clashes begin to subside, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (or the interim military government) on the 24th November issued an apology for the deaths of about 40 protesters. Parliamentary elections were soon organized and won by the Muslim Brotherhood. On the 23rd May 2012, Egyptians voted in the first round of the presidential election. Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was later declared the winner. For the first time Egypt had a democratically elected, civilian president leading to the country.

A big mistake.

Muslim Brotherhood was and is still a terrorist organization in the eyes of the Egypt’s military and its close ally the US. The army had to act swiftly, with Washington’s support, to remove an elected leader Morsi for strange reasons. Morsi was overthrown by the military in July 2013 following mass protests a year after he took office. In response, former US Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that Egypt’s military was “restoring democracy” when it ousted Morsi, who was later in 2015 given a life sentence for “conspiring to commit terrorist acts with foreign organisations to undermine national security,” amongst others charges.

The lesson learnt after the military fooled Egyptians that they had had a revolution was that the conduct of generals was very easy to understand or predict. Egypt’s military had been deeply invested in politics for around 60 years. The military became one of the most important factors in Egyptian politics after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 since days of Gamal El Nasser. Not only that, military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries. There are also large amounts of land owned by the military in the Nile Delta and on the Red Sea coast. Therefore, the truth is that the military, not the howling street protesters, ultimately removed President Mubarak on the 11th February 2011, and also removed Morsi two years later.

The military coöpted the Egyptian revolution after it initially wanted a “cohabitation arrangement” with the Morsi government, which failed. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had been appointed a defence minister in the Morsi government to safeguard the interests of the army in the post-Mubarak era. “As long as the Brothers didn’t interfere too much in the military matters, then the military would allow them to get on with the business of civilian government,” one source claims.

Now turning attention to Zimbabwe. The most worrying factor with the Zimbabwean situation was that citizens, especially those on social media and diaspora, thought the anarchy was the best solution. The Zimbabwean Defence Forces (ZDF) have set the ball rolling for yet another fake revolution in Zimbabwe. The protests in Zimbabwe set the country on a path of political instability Nr. 2 in Southern Africa as seen in the allegedly rigged elections in 2018. Zimbabwe added to instability facing the region without really bringing any meaningful change to its citizens who are still confused and hungry. Zimbabwe now rivals Lesotho which holds an unenviable record of instability and weak governments.

Chaotic, unclear solutions might appear to be sound in the short-term but always prove seriously costly in the long run. Egyptians learned the hardest way as the military continues to call the shots after a “revolution”. What is happened in Zimbabwe too was almost a carbon copy of what happened in Egypt. Of course the only difference is that the Zimbabwe “revolution” was without blood. Like in Egypt the ZDF holds considerable power and has very close links with the ruling Zanu-PF.

It is almost impossible to imagine that the army will ever be happy with being a “professional” status, having no influence the country’s politics. The events following the 2018 elections proved just that. A “cohabitation arrangement” created under Mugabe’s close to four-decade rule is not possible to maintain in a government without Chimurenga generals and Zanu-PF. A situation of Morsi could have been repeated if the army felt that its power in Zimbabwean politics would be constrained.

It is safe to say that Egypt is an anarchical place; after similar celebrations as in Zimbabwe, over the years it quickly transpired that Zimbabweans were always headed towards a huge disappointment. Admittedly, Mugabe is long gone and dead, but all that characterised his rule remains, namely: weak economy, powerful army, old men in power, disappearing US dollars, fewer jobs, lack of democracy, and powerful generals.

The ZDF has not accounted for the infamous Gukurahundi in 1983 as well as for other atrocities in independent Zimbabwe. It is estimated that between ten and twenty thousands unarmed civilians died at the hands of Fifth Brigade in a security clampdown in Matebeleland. For many, Mugabe and his Zanu-PF comrades, in government and army, “ruled the country for four decades using patronage and fear.”

The question is: Why people suddenly had faith in generals who were part of a repressive system? Evidence from elsewhere suggests that people would accept military rule in exchange for security and maybe less economic problems. But all this turned out to be a huge disappointment. The point is, the so-called “democratizing coups” are largely fiction.

Not only Egypt or Zimbabwe but Latin America also provides compelling evidence that country would descend to chaos after military led interventions. Latin America began ousting its dictators in the 1980s but “ridding countries of their militaristic culture, though, has been tougher.” For example, In September 2017, Brazilian Gen. Antonio Mourão reawakened old fears when he assured people that “the military was prepared to intervene to save the country from its spiraling political and economic crisis.” Nonetheless, the people who occupied streets in Sao Paolo had faith that political changes after Dilma Rousseff was removed would bring stability and progress.

Alas! Brazil’s former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro is the current president, and the large South American country is close to chaos. He openly prefers the order of military rule to the mess of liberal democracy. Bolsonaro fired two health ministers in a space of days during the coronavirus epidemic. The overall Latin American history as well shows that military dictatorships do not help nations advance or build democracy. Instead, according to Argentinian Ruth Diamant, “they leave stunted states unable to guarantee democratic legitimacy or ensure social well-being.”

In conclusion, for many people the riots in the US are about police brutality and that is the reason they are gaining support from liberals within and outside America. Solidarity marches have taken place in Berlin, London, Ottawa and elsewhere. What is omitted is that most of these countries have horrendous records in how they they treat their people and others, including migrants, minorities, etc.

The protests in the US could be much deeper than what liberals would tolerate. Hence, they are likely to misdirect the forceful struggle by blacks in America. For example, the riots are now positioned as a convenient way to remove President Donald Trump. After that it would back to normal, where crime and poverty would be synonymous with the Black-American and Latino communities.

The one who says he wants to help remove the boot from your neck could be the one who wants to suffocate you even more!

* Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters. IOL