Africa's new Nasserist leaf
Nasser's Egypt dealt with Africa on an equal footing, neither master nor muse, and ironically Mursi, under pressure to show his hand, now has a great deal to learn from the late Egyptian legendary president and discard Mubarak's outmoded and obsolete lack of an African policy. Curious coincidences on a continental scale, contends Gamal Nkrumah
We can identify two types of prima facie counter-evidence that Egypt has had an uneasy relationship with its neighbours to the south. Egypt hardly ever passes the ball on the African economic and political football fields. Yet Cairo craves scoring goals in Africa.
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Nasser, centre, with leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement Nehru, Nkrumah, Sukarno, Tito; right: Salah Salem dancing with South Sudanese tribesmen; below: Nasser with Ben Bella
Egypt has long enjoyed a fractious relationship with the rest of Africa, especially since the diplomatic debacles of ex-president Hosni Mubarak. By disposition, Africa wary, Cairo has to date not quite faced up to the contradictions in Mubarak's Africa policy, or lack of it to be curt.
This sort of moral dilemma is meat and drink to any advocate of the continental African unity project. A far deeper understanding of African concerns is now needed. The late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser could pull crowds in Africa, so why are so few Africans listening to what Egypt has to say today? "I would like to stress how fast Africa and the world around us is changing and how perilously dangerous of us in Egypt to think we can stand still," Mohamed Fayek, one-time Nasser's chief emissary in Africa and currently Vice President of Egypt's National Council for Human Rights.
"Sometimes, the way the media projects Egypt's interest in Africa is restricted to the Nile waters. Africa is not Egypt's holding pond. All this talk about the Nile Basin is quite frankly offensive. You'd think that Egyptians are only interested in Africa as literally a backwater reservoir," Fayek told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"We, during the days of Nasser, had a comprehensive perspective of African affairs which was in no way restricted to the question of water. Yes, the Nile was one aspect, but there were others no less important -- the liberation struggle, the struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism, the drive to eradicate poverty, disease, illiteracy and underdevelopment," Fayek extrapolated.
Nasser cared deeply for Africa, but surely he did not want the continent to be handed to him on a silver platter.
I do not intend to be discourteous to the heroic individuals who have since striven, against all odds, to safeguard the profound and positive implications of Nasser's progressive policy towards Africa. But numerous Egyptian diplomats disagree, of course, with this claim. But their disclaimer is hard to square with the reality of Egypt's relations with Africa. Three decades after virtually departing from African affairs, Egypt wants back in. Cairo is ready for a big new role in the continent.
And, Africa is ready for receiving Egypt back into the continental fold. It is popularly held that Cairo's traditional interest in Africa was trade, the Nile waters, and spreading Islamic culture. There has historically been an inexplicable urgency and even a frustration about Egypt's real intentions in Africa. Cairo understood superficially the African potential, but not profoundly enough.
On the face of it, all seems well. However, there were challenges as far as Nasser's Africa policy was concerned. "When the Nigerian civil war erupted after Biafra's secession several African nations sympathetic to the Biafran cause were incensed at Cairo's pro-Nigerian stance. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and his Zambian counterpart Kenneth Kaunda accused Egypt of supporting Nigeria because of religious bias. Nigeria, being predominantly Muslim and the Biafran secessionists Christian," Fayek added.
But it wasn't quite. Egypt supported Nigeria's sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity. Nasser fiercely opposed the Balkanisation of Africa, rather he supported the political and economic integration of Africa," Fayek explicated.
"Religious affiliation had nothing to do with Nasser's decision to support the Nigerian government bid to recapture Biafra. And Nasser continued to be a close friend of both Nyerere and Kaunda, regardless of political differences over Biafra. That is how they talked in those days. They talked very openly and we exchanged views and ideas freely," Fayek elucidated.
"I noticed that during the African Union summit in Addis Ababa last week that President Mohamed Mursi said that Egypt was prepared to export the 25 January Revolution to African countries. Well, that is precisely what we did in our day. We, too, were prepared to spread the principles of the 23 July Revolution throughout the African continent," Fayek mused.
For a while the medicine seemed to work. Nasser's Egypt was widely revered throughout the African continent. Cairo inspired confidence in Africa and especially in the liberation struggles and the fight to emancipate the continent from underdevelopment. "Egypt was a beacon of African liberation. The Tripartite Invasion, the 1956 Suez War, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the radical land reform in Nasser's Egypt inspired many African countries to follow the Egyptian example," Fayek enucleated.
There is nothing particularly novel about exporting revolution. But because there was no money for grands projets in Africa, eventually there was a kind of bathos in the struggle against neo-colonialism. The former colonial powers retained their power and influence in the African continent. Some African leaders needed funding for grandiose development projects.
However, that level of spending required tremendous capital investments and technical expertise. Which was what Nasser's Egypt did not necessarily have.
Public cynicism over Egyptian politicians commitment to African concerns heightened sharply in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli 6 October War when virtually all African states severed diplomatic relations with Israel. The widely anticipated Arab funding for African development projects failed to materialise. That could not have been good for the cause of African-Arab solidarity and some Africans began gravitating towards an ideology or a forum that crystallizes a separate south of the Sahara non-Arab identity. Indeed, the late strongman of what was then Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of Congo, was shrewd enough to create a new exclusively non-Arab African forum -- the League of Black African States. It needn't have happened, and it shouldn't have happened.
Who is right? Is it the continental Pan-Africanists or those who advocate a purely racial Black African identity? One of the staunchest proponents of continental African unity was the late Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah. In April 1958 he invited the leaders of the then only eight independent African states -- three south of the Sahara and five North African states -- Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia -- to attend a summit in the Ghanaian capital Accra.
"We are here to know ourselves and to exchange views on matters of common interest; to explore ways and means of consolidating and safeguarding our hard-won independence; to strengthen economic and cultural ties between our countries to find workable arrangements for helping our brothers still languishing under colonial rule; to examine the central problem which dominates the world today, namely how to secure peace," Nkrumah addressed delegates at the Accra summit.
Nasser wholeheartedly concurred. Less than 48 hours after the CIA engineered coup d'etat that overthrew the democratically elected government of Kwame Nkrumah, Nasser dispatched a letter of solidarity to Nkrumah. "With feelings of great bitterness and shock, we, in the United Arab Republic, have heard of the sad events to which the people of Ghana were exposed‚ê¶ I agree with you that the force of colonialism are always trying to undermine the independence of African states, and draw them again into spheres of influence in order to continue exploiting their resources and shape their fates. What has happened in Ghana is actually part of this imperialist plan," Nasser wrote to Nkrumah. "To face colonialists in the African continent requires of us all continuous efforts and a sustained struggle to liberate it from old colonialism and neo-colonialism. The setback that has occurred in Ghana must act as a driving force for all o us to continue the struggle for the consolidation of the independence of African peoples and their liberation from imperialist forces," Nasser concluded.
By those yardsticks, Nasser cemented bonds with like-minded leaders throughout the African continent. The legendary Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, the Guinean strongman Ahmed Sekou Toure and others were the most resolute allies of Nasser in Africa. There was a streak of romanticism in Nasser's approach to Africa, but there was also a practical intent.
During the Nasser years, Al-Azhar, Egypt dispatched thousands of teachers of the Arabic language and Islamic religious clerics to predominantly Muslim African countries. Nasser was careful to send Al-Azhar scholars not as proselytisers but as teachers and cultural exchange workers.
These academic activists had a tremendous influence on the spread of a moderate and progressive form of Islam in Africa. The history of Arab-African relations suggests that the question of religion was always a prickly one.
These shortcomings of the Arab approach to African affairs have now become painfully familiar. Many Africans see the rising star of political Islam as threatening. The emergence of militant Islamist organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar Al-Dine in Mali are warning signs in the occasionally vituperative world of African politics. Religious conflict degenerates into petty and contemptuous squabbling over semantics and hysterical zealotry which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Africans south of the Sahara.
A crisis cropped up between the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellassie and Nasser, ironically not over Nile waters, but apparently concerning religion. The Ethiopian Emperor was unduly concerned about what he believed to be the deplorable conditions of the Coptic Christians of Egypt. He suggested that Nasser engineer a mass exodus of Coptic Christians from Egypt to Ethiopia, and in return Ethiopian Muslims would be moved to Egypt, a request politely declined by Nasser who understood that the Coptic Christians of Egypt were an integral part of the Egyptian social fabric.
Life in Ethiopia, landlocked in Africa's pulsating heart, a very Biblical euphemism for the continent and its people, traditionally moves at a leisurely pace and the country itself appears at times to be peculiarly medieval, well behind the times. Contemporary Ethiopia has witnessed the upsurge of demands by the Muslims of the country who constitute roughly 45 per cent of the population to demand full citizenship rights and a bigger say in the decision-making process.
There is though, a counter-example. The Nasserist experience in Africa was constructive. And, more often than not, the Nasserist experience in Africa eviscerated a legitimate common foe target of Africans -- imperialism and neo-colonialism -- with minimal collateral damage, particularly when compared with Al-Qaeda.
With a string of dubious successes behind them, Al-Qaeda is making inroads into predominantly Muslim African countries. "This was not the case in Nasser's day," Fayek muses.
And, then his conversation takes on a more sombre tone. "The militant Islamists are opportunists. Their tactics led to the division of Sudan," he stresses.
Pessimism has slid into general disillusionment and anger directed at higher-ups and better-offs. During the days of Nasser there were reasons for cautious optimism. A similar effect may be occurring today.