An African reflection on Tahrir Square

Published on Pambazuka News, by Mahmood Mamdani, May 12, 2011.

While European interpretations of the events of Egypt’s Tahrir Square see the uprising’s roots through a lens of ‘coloured’ revolutions following the decline of the Soviet Union, Mahmood Mamdani instead stresses the resemblance to South Africa’s Soweto in 1976, a struggle ‘identified with the onset of community-based organisation’.

The discussion on justice in this conference focused on two of its forms: criminal and social. There has been little discussion of political justice. My object in this talk will be to look at the events identified with Tahrir Square through the lens of political justice. 

I want to begin with giving you a taste of how Tahrir Square has resonated with official Africa. Not only has this new way of doing politics, politics without recourse to arms, bewildered officialdom; it has also sent a chill down many an official spine.

I will give an example from Uganda … //


New ideas create the basis of new unities and new methods of struggle. Modern power seeks to politicise cultural differences in society and, having done so, turns around and claims that these divisions are inevitable for they are natural. To be successful, a new politics must offer an antidote, being an alternative practice that unites those divided by prevailing modes of governance. Before and after Soweto, Steve Biko insisted that, more than just biology, blackness was a political experience. This point of view created the ideological basis of a new anti-racist unity. I do not know of a counterpart to Steve Biko in Tahrir Square – may be there was not one Biko but many Bikos in Egypt. But I do believe that Tahrir Square has come to symbolise the basis for a new unity, one that consciously seeks to undermine the practice of religious secterianism.

Consider one remarkable fact. No major event in contemporary history has been forecast, either by researchers or consultants, whether based in universities or in think tanks. This was true of Soweto in 1976. It was true of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and it was true of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. What does it say about the state of our knowledge that we can foretell a natural catastrophe – an earthquake, even a tsunami – but not a political shift of similar dimensions? The rule would seem to be: the bigger the shift, the less likely is the chance of it being foretold. This is for one reason. Big shifts in social and political life require an act of the imagination – a break from routine, a departure from convention – why social science, which is focused on the study of routine, of institutional and repetitive behaviour, is unable to forecast big events.

It took nearly two decades for the Soweto uprising to deliver a democratic fruit in South Africa. The democratic revolution in Egypt has just begun – it seems to me that Tahrir Square has not led to a revolution, but to a reform. And that is not a bad thing. The significance of Egypt, unlike that of Libya next door, is threefold. First is the moral force of non-violence, of the many rather than just the few. Second, non-violence of the multitude makes possible a new politics of inclusion. And finally, it makes possible a radically different sense of the worth of self. Unlike violence, non-violence does not just resist and exclude. It also embraces and includes, thereby opening up new possibilities of reform, possibilities that seemed unimaginable only yesterday.

Key to the period after Tahrir is the political challenge that lies in the days, months and years ahead. That challenge is to reform the Egyptian state, to shape through a political process the answer to the question: who is an Egyptian? Who has a right to citizenship, to equal treatment under the law? (full long text).

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