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North Africa’s new unlawful democracies

The ‘Arab revolution’ as a phenomenon backed by France and its allies is evidence of the arbitrariness of liberal democracy long ago identified by the German jurist Carl Schmitt: it is no more than rule achieved through a state of emergency.
Samson A. Bezabeh
10 November 2011

The writing of the German jurist and political philosopher Carl Schmitt seems to sum up pretty effectively what is presently happening in North Africa. In a series of books where he laid out his critique of modern liberal democratic ideals, Schmitt explained the foundation of the modern state through the state of exception and pointed out the arbitrariness of the rules and regulations of the modern state. The law of the modern state, he tells us, originates from an unlawful act - the decision of the sovereign power who takes responsibility for the declaration of the state of emergency.

The so-called Arab democratic revolutions have demonstrated the soundness of Schmitt’s analysis. The world has seen that states of emergency have been declared not just for a matter of weeks but for decades on end. In Egypt, for example, a state of emergency has operated for nearly thirty years, in which the Egyptian people were prey to killings and arbitrary arrests while people around the world were unaware of the situation and the law that had been put in place. In a similar vein, in Syria, citizens have endured rule through a state of emergency since the Baath party took power in the 1960s.

The world has also witnessed the unlawful and extrajudicial executions of scores of people. As the recently-compiled Amnesty International report testifies, in Libya the rebel forces now accepted as the legitimate rulers of the country have killed black Africans they have dragged from many corners of the country, after labelling them as mercenaries fighting for Muammar Gaddafi. An eye-witness report documented by the Amnesty International team has exposed the street justice taking place in territories occupied by the rebel forces :

A week after protest started, I got a panicked phone call at 2am from my cousin in Majir, that some armed men raided her house, which she shared with other Sudanese women and children. To protect them, the following morning at dawn, I went to Marjir…on my way back to Bengazi on the same day after ‘Asr (The afternoon prayer, around 3.30pm), the thuwwar stopped our bus at a road block near ‘Aguria (just as one comes down the mountain from Majir)…They were armed…We were traveling in a procession of three small buses (12 passengers each) …I saw three black people being brought down from the vehicle in front of us. The three were beaten by several thuwwar; two hit the black men with axes on their head and all over their body. Two of them fell on the ground and were no longer moving; I think dead. I saw the third raise his hand, and it was chopped off (with the axe). Our bus drove off before I could see what happened to him later, but I am sure he was killed too…

To make matters worse, the killing of these men has been videotaped and distributed for consumption purposes through You Tube and other new media outlets. See for example the corpse of a black man being strung up after he was killed by the rebel army in a celebration of death in the following video. The mob and people surrounding the corpse are jubilant about the ‘justice’ they have executed, while the so called ‘mercenaries’ vehemently express their innocence.

Extrajudicial killings are nothing new in that corner of Africa, however. Since the foundation of the modern nation state, the torture and killing of people has been the order of the day. Report after report of international human rights organizations document the atrocities committed by rulers often backed and substantially supported by western nations. Such is the case, for example, of the Hosni Mubarak regime which amassed a substantial amount of aid from the west as a result of its strategic importance in the region. Just before the downfall of the regime, a Human Rights Watch report made abundantly clear the unlawful arrests, disappearances and killings of citizens who dared to question the dictatorship of the regime that had taken place.

Nor is this a phenomenon solely confined to the rebel armies of the region or to the postcolonial African state. The violent process of exclusion which founds the modern nation state, Agamben argues, is not only exhibited in the case of Hitler’s Germany but also other European states which have styled themselves as the bastions of freedom. What of France, for example, that now regards itself as the champion of the new Arab democracies? Contrary to popular belief, France was founded through a deliberate process of exclusion that took place during the French revolution, elevating “Liberté, Fraternité and Egalité” to become the ideological motto that it is for the Republic of France to this day. But that revolution was for white French men only. When the Caribbean revolutionaries from the French colony of Haiti embraced the revolutionary ideal of dignity and equality among human beings they were swiftly silenced. Mirabeau who acted as the President of the National Constituent Assembly of France at the time of the French Revolution informed the general assembly that when it came to the Haitian revolutionaries, ‘in proportioning the number of deputies to the population of France, we have taken into consideration neither the number of our horse nor that of our mules’. The Haitian revolutionaries were duly silenced by the military forces sent out from France.

Through military and economic agreements, France was able to maintain its hold in Africa. In Africa in general and North Africa in particular French involvement has been continuous and often bloody. In the annals of history, whether in Algeria, Tunisia or Mauritius, France has played a part in dividing the Muslim tribes of the region. And this has led to the killing of many whose names we have long ago forgotten: for example, Ag Mohammed Wau Teguidda Kaocen -  the Tuareg leader who died fighting the French colonial army. In Rwanda, for example, France was accused of providing a safe haven for people suspected of genocide. In the recent past we have seen how France involved itself in the Ivory Coast in the capture and arrest of Laurent Gbagbo, who effectively opposed France’s economic interests in the country. Unlike Gaddafi, Gbagbo was not killed: he only had to witness the mistreatment and beating of his wife by rebel forces. People forget too that less than fifty years ago France was torturing and killing Arabs in Algeria. France, nevertheless, has been dubbed a friend of the Arab nations.

In the colonial period, France styled itself as a pro-Muslim power. Even before that, when Napoleon Bonaparte led his military expedition to Egypt where the Mamluks where residing, the friendly tone of France was unwavering. In one of his speeches, Napoleon declared his solidarity with Muslims and Arabs: “Cadis, Sheiks and Imams, Chorbadgys, you will be told that I came to destroy your religion; do not believe it. Let your answer be that I come to reestablish your right and punish your usurpers, and that I have more respect than the Mamluks for your gods, his prophet, and the Quran”.

The hyprocrisy embedded in Napoleon’s speech seems to have surfaced once more in this region of Africa which has always been under the imperial eyes of France. While Barack Obama took a step forward by declaring in his Cairo speech “that it is important for western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing their religion as they see fit - for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear”, Nicolas Sarkozy was actively outlawing the wearing of the hijab and eventually persecuting Muslims who dared to wear it in public.

This is the same France who together with it allies used force to enter the territory of Libya. For a historian, it is not something new to read about the flogging, often in public, of African chiefs who dared to question let alone contradict the colonial master.  What makes now different from then is not the act but the sophistication of the instrument. Although voting was carried out under a United Nation mandate and Arab nations, such as Qatar, were pulled from pillar to post to make the action look like an approved international action, what we saw here in fact was the re-enactment of the philosophical foundation of the modern nation state, which made Europe, as Schmitt tells us in his Nomos of the Earth, a war free zone while the rest of the world became a free land where war could be waged. It is this old principle of bracketing war in Europe that brought the infamous soldiers of France, the black boots, to Africa in the colonial period. It is the same principle, albeit masked in the modern language of democracy and UN sanctions, that has once again stirred French colonial power into action.

This action has not confined itself to the killing of civilians but led directly to the lynching of Gaddafi and his entourage. What is forgotten as the world press tries to pinpoint the single individual who put the final bullet into Gaddafi, is the juridical principles that in the first place provided a conducive space for the killing of the former leader. It was the French air force, present in its absence and primed to destroy an African chief on the run that bombed Gaddafi’s vehicles as he attempted to break out from Sirte, a sophisticated act intended to finish off Gaddafi that served as prelude to his eventual lynching by rebel forces who had already gathered ample experience of extrajudicial killing. In Sirte, desensitized human beings have waited in line to take a picture of themselves with the two dead corpses lying on the floor. It is in this humanitarian disregard, the same inhumanity shown the thousands of African migrants left unattended and uncared for by the new democratic coalition against Gaddafi, that the ultimate tragedy of present day North Africa lies. Ordinary citizens have been turned into the accomplices of those who are applying these unlawful acts, acts which Agamben argued, lie at the basis of modern law and the modern state.

This is a tragedy that spreads beyond North Africa to those looking on. Writing post-9/11, Judith Butler argued in the Precarious Life: the  power of mourning and violence that mourning has the potential to unite us  all,  as  we understand together what loss means. The spectacle witnessed in Sirte reverses the unity/humanity that can be so generated. Dislocated  from it  sense  of  loss, mourning  has  been inverted  to  become a divisive  factor  which  is  already distributing its effects in the  persecution of people such as the Tuareg tribesmen who were  allegedly  supporting Gaddafi’s forces. 

We are reminded of the asymmetric relation that France has with Africa when we look at the stance that the African Union took in the case of Libya. Long before its reluctant acceptance of the rebel force as the legitimate governors of Libya, the Africa Union rejected NATO’s plan of action. When through sheer force Libya’s government establishment was crumbling, the African Union made it clear to the relevant international bodies that they would not recognize the rebel forces. Despite its opposition, in the face of France and its allies, the African Union has however become a toothless dog who can bark but cannot bite in defending the supposed independence of African soil.

Once more, the former colonial powers have taken a decision and executed it, regardless. What is paradoxical in the operation is not all the talk of democracy and the freeing of the Arab nation, but the backing of rebel forces who, in theory, are illegal. Not long ago France and its western allies were busy insisting that, in Africa, power should only be taken through the ballot box. Instead, democracy through the ballot box has been summarily replaced by the spectacle of dead bodies and ailing leaders caged for display to the international community.

The so-called ‘Arab revolution’, as it is backed by France and its allies, is evidence of the arbitrariness of liberal democracy long ago identified by the German jurist Carl Schmitt: it is no more than rule achieved through a state of emergency. What is worse, the democracy that is supposedly coming from the rebel forces and which is backed by France has started its history not with the declaration of independence (which came late enough both in the case of Libya and Egypt), but by arbitrary decision, interference and executions. It is only a matter of time before the unlawful democracy that started by lynching people will further reveal its arbitrariness and inherent force, against the very people that were happy to support it.

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