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African leadership for a new generation: reflections on the North African revolutions

The young revolutionaries in North Africa face two challenges: the attempt by incumbent regimes to co-opt them and the attempt by western governments to influence them. For the Pan-Africanist movement to be sustainable it has to be owned by the people, says Rawia Amer

On the 4th of June 2011 the Oxford University Africa Society organized a conference titled ‘Pan-Africanism for a new generation’. The conference aimed at bringing young African researchers from different British universities together with African scholars, policymakers, and activists to discuss the challenges facing the African continent in the twenty-first century. About forty participants from more than fifteen African countries participated in the conference which inaugurates a series of annual deliberations on the meaning and means of continental co-operation. This year we selected three major themes for the discussion as they relate to promoting the cause of Pan-Africanism; the role of the African diaspora, the required model of leadership and governance, and the way of managing African resources.

On the theme of leadership I argued that although a number of institutions have been established inside and outside the continent to develop leadership skills, many African countries are still in need of nurturing a new generation of leaders in different institutions. Taking inspiration from the role played by the young generation of leaders in the North African revolutions, I want to shed light on the lessons learned from this role and the prospects of youth political participation in Africa in general and North Africa in particular.

Revolting against the ‘aged state’

Although the North African revolutions were truly cross-generational revolts against dictatorial regimes, young activists played a central role in sparking these revolutions. And while these uprisings are rightly seen as an outcry for democracy and social justice, I believe that they also presented a rejection of the ‘aged state’; a state whose institutions are dominated by aged, long-serving leaders. Simple calculations show that the average age of African heads of states and governments is approximately 61 with more than 15 leaders over the age of 70. This ‘aged state’ is then across the board in Africa and exists not only at the level of the states’ leadership, but also in ideological movements, political parties and trade unions. This comes at a time when Africa is regarded as the world’s youngest continent, with 70% of the population under the age of 30 according to a United Nations’ estimation. In short, the African continent presents a case of aged states and young societies.  

North Africa revolutions indicate that this generational contradiction is unsustainable. In Egypt, some young groups who took the street from the first day of the revolution decided to join the uprising in independence of the organizations and movements to which they belong. The participation of the young Muslim Brotherhoods in spite of the absence of a decision from the movement’s guidance bureau or consultative council to collectively join the 25th of January demonstrations is a case in point.    

In confronting the aged dictatorial regimes and the hierarchical authority of social and political organizations, activists in Egypt and Tunisia have provided a model of collective leadership. In the absence of a single inspiring political leader or an organized force, these young activists have mobilized masses capitalizing on common grievances and shared aspirations for a better future. In Tunisia, for example, labour and professional groups played an active role in expanding the protests initiated by young activists, but no single force could claim credit for leading the revolution. This offered, as Horace Campbell among other scholars noted, a departure from the theoretical model of revolutions based on a leading vanguard party or an organised working class.

The leadership of the new generation: between domestic co-optation and international influence

The North Africa revolutions will undoubtedly open new avenues of engagement for young leaders in the public space not only in North Africa, but in the African continent as a whole. While this engagement is necessary to develop a new generation of leaders that acquires political training and restores people’s confidence in political elites, young activists need to deal with two challenges. The first emanates from the attempt of the incumbent and/or future regimes to co-opt these activists in a way that legitimises their policies or undemocratic practices by claiming to include the younger generation in policy deliberations. These tactics are not entirely new. Previous dictatorial regimes, especially in Tunisia, held the banners of women’s rights and promoted an emancipatory legal framework to protect these rights. But this was, as the Egyptian scholar Heba Raouf noted, nothing more than a process of ‘feminizing autocracy’ that used the women empowerment discourse to make up for the lack of political and economic rights for both men and women. Following the post-revolutionary developments in Egypt reveals that the same process is now taking place, this time with the new formations of young revolutionaries.  Most of these revolutionaries are, however, aware that establishing a bureau for them in the prime minister’s office, appointing young scholars as formal advisors for government ministers, or inviting them to meetings with the ruling military council are not enough to ensure their effective participation in the decision-making process. The challenge for the revolutionaries is then to link up with the state’s institutions while maintaining their autonomy vis-a-vis these institutions and, more importantly, their connections with the grassroots.

The incumbent regimes are not the only actor that approaches the young revolutionary leaders. Different western governments are also trying to establish connections with the future leaders in different spheres in the revolting countries. The speech on the Middle East delivered by the American President, Barak Obama, last May could not have been clearer in referring to these endeavours. According to him, the United States must ‘build on [its] efforts to broaden [its] engagement beyond elites, so that [it] reaches the people who will shape the future - particularly young people’. Again, the youths are conscious of this challenge. The refusal of the revolution’s youth coalition to meet with the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in her first visit to Cairo after the fall of Mubarak regime is a clear indication. This stance reflected not only a refusal of guardianship by any external or domestic force, but also a lack of trust in western governments which were close allies to Mubarak regime. Reaching out to external, especially non-governmental, forces to share experiences and mobilize support for the revolution while rejecting any attempts to shape the agenda of the revolutionaries is the second big challenge of the North African revolutions.  The recent accusations of serving external agendas and receiving training by foreign agencies that were raised by Egypt’s ruling military council against the 6th of April Movement, one of the most active youth movements in the revolution, reveal the importance of dealing with this challenge.                        

Finally, there are different ways in which these developments and challenges in North Africa could shape the Pan-Africanist agenda. The fact that revolutionaries in Egypt have benefited from strategies followed by their counterparts in Tunisia means that there are opportunities for sharing experiences of mass mobilization and resistance without denying the particularity of each country. Importantly also, while the reactions of the African governments towards the North African popular uprisings were largely confused and sceptical, those of African scholars and civil society activists were largely supportive. Hundreds of African scholars and activists participating in the World Social Forum in Dakar last February expressed their support for, and solidarity with, the people of Tunisia and Egypt.  This reinforces the argument that for the Pan-Africanist movement to be sustainable it has to be owned by the people.  These two lessons have to guide the Pan-Africanist agenda in the twenty-first century.  

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