Frantz Fanon and the Arab Uprisings: An Interview with Nigel Gibson

from Thinking Africa: Fanon 50 years later
Nigel Gibson was interviewed by Yasser Munif in Jadaliyya:  “The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s magnum opus, was published in 1961, a few days after his death. The book was not only influential for several generations of grassroots movements and activists in Africa, the United States, and Latin America; it was also discussed and debated extensively in intellectual circles across the globe. The reception of the book was more mitigated in the Arab world. This might be due to Fanon’s sweeping criticism of national bourgeoisie, which seized power after decolonization and became an intermediary class between Western powers and local populations. The Martiniquan intellectual was skeptical of revolutions from above, as was the case with several anti-colonialist movements in the Arab World. Interestingly, while the Arabic translation of the The Wretched of the Earth came out shortly after its publication in French, it omitted many passages because they were critical of the national bourgeoisie. Fifty years later, Fanon is almost absent in public discourses in the Middle East and is still marginal in the Maghreb. The uprisings should have been an excellent opportunity for Arab intellectuals and activists to engage with Fanon’s work on the revolution and the subaltern in the new conjuncture. However, despite the significance of his political philosophy for the current revolts, his books are either out of print or conspicuously absent from many bookstores in the Arab world.
“In this interview with Nigel Gibson, one of the most prominent experts on Fanon’s work, he explains the significance of the Fanonian theoretical framework and its relevance for the Arab uprisings. Nigel Gibson has written a number of articles and books on the Martiniquan intellectual and deployed a Fanonian perspective to examine many contemporary revolts. His numerous books include Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (2003) and Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo (2011). He teaches postcolonial theory at Emerson College. The interview was conducted in Boston in July 2012.”
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Though the “Arab Spring” opened things up in many countries, it was not all the same, nor is the struggle of the people complete on any front, so attempts to classify or categorize will inherently fail. Nonetheless, this map represents one view of how things have gone (so far).

Yasser Munif (YM): Ongoing protests have swept the Arab world since the toppling of the Tunisian dictator. They changed the political and cultural landscape of the region. The mot d’ordre of the protesters is clear: “The people want the fall of the regime.” Western powers tried to co-opt the protests because real democracy in the Arab World can threaten their domination of the region. They want to maintain their hegemony in the oil rich gulf. The region is also important geopolitically because of the United States’ close ties to Israel and its wars in the Middle East. The interest of the West in the region is not new. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that while formal colonization ended in the mid-twentieth century, Arab countries became the political satellites of the West since then. He writes, “for two generations the United States has sided in the Middle East mostly with tyranny and injustice… one administration after another has propped up compliant and unpopular clients, and turned away from the efforts of small peoples to liberate themselves from military occupation. In a way, Said is suggesting that real independence was never achieved; the present politico-economic condition of Arab countries is a continuation of the colonial period by new means. In this context, the work of Frantz Fanon is very relevant to understanding the current Arab uprisings. Yet, as you explain in a recent essay, one should refrain from the temptation of extrapolating old concepts into new situations. Referring to Fanon’s work ,you write, “The task for radicals is to avoid applying pre-formed cookie-cutter theory to new situations and jamming a new event or movement into old categories, but, instead, to begin to open up space for dialogue and reflection on action.” Do you think that Frantz Fanon’s analysis about colonialism, imperialism, and independence movements can have any relevance today for Arab protesters who are challenging despotic regimes?

Nigel Gibson (NG): I do think that Fanon has relevance, and so the question is how do you approach Fanon? Are there categories in Fanon’s thought that can simply be applied to new situations, and if so what new thinking would emerge? Applying Fanon’s categories to new situations is valuable to a degree, but the question I am asking is what does Fanon offer us methodologically? In other words, how does he actually get us to rethink our concepts? I think Fanon is basically an open thinker and a radically humanist thinker. If you look at the first pages of Black Skin White Masks, where he is critical of scientific methods, to the final pages of the Wretched of the Earth, where he talks about working out new concepts, the question is how and on what basis do you work on new concepts with the goal of human freedom? For Fanon, becoming actional is connected to his idea of a new humanism, which is explicitly critical of European humanism so intimately connected with colonialism. So, it is not simply about finding new concepts from anywhere, but being both critical and self-critical and also being very open to what is happening on the ground. So, in other words, a critic could have said, last January in 2011 in Tahrir Square, that if you read Fanon, you know that the liberatory moment is going to be closed down by the military or the state, and therefore end up with a kind of ontological pessimism. We are defeated before we begin. The critic might add, Fanon tells us that all these revolutions in the end will fail, and look: they have. But, for me, that is not how one engages Fanon. If Fanon is alive he is in the revolts because the revolts themselves open up something very new. One has to be aware, or listen, or open one’s mind to what are the new beginnings.
Now, you could look at the situation and say, Fanon tells us to be very wary of the nationalist elite and all the other social forces we could talk about: religious elite, nationalist elite, military elite, regional elites, and the comprador nature of some of these elites and all the repressive ideologies that justify them. So, in other words, the question then becomes how do you employ Fanon productively? You do not want to close down possibilities, but at the same time, you want to be wary of Fanon’s warnings. So, in a certain sense, it is what I would consider a dialectical approach. It is not simply good enough—and one could do it with any thinker, one could do it with Marx—to have a series of categories to say, well, this revolt will fail because it does not correspond with the categories or fulfill certain expectations in a Marx or in a Fanon, and therefore it is doomed to do this and that. Even if in the end it does this and that, we have to be open about what is new in the Arab revolts. What do they tell us? How do they come about? Why have they come about now? In what way can one see them as new beginnings, a turning of a page, and the creation of a new historical moment, rather than a repetition of a neocolonial situation that you mention in Said’s quote in the beginning? If Fanon’s thought is alive, it cannot be simply applied.
YM: As I mentioned above, Said thinks that the process of decolonization was aborted by local social forces or international policies, and that what we are experiencing in the Middle East today is a continuation of old fashioned colonialism, as in the case of Iraq, or a form of neocolonialism /imperialism, as is the case of most Arab countries. In that sense, Fanon is extremely relevant and we have to reread him. And yet, Fanon has been extremely absent in the Arab public spheres, public discussions, and the media in general. Some intellectuals have either consciously avoided him or are ignorant about his work and its implications on contemporary Arab societies. Others, for ideological reasons, denied these connections between “metropole” and “colony,” to use Fanon’s categories and the relationship between the two. Many Arabs and Western liberals have argued that the revolts are about democracy and anti-authoritarianism and we should not conflate these new categories with the older ones such as imperialism or colonialism. Hazem Saghieh, one of the influential Lebanese journalists who writes for the London-based and Gulf-funded al-Hayat newspaper, wrote in one of his articles that protesters in Tahrir Square were not holding signs about imperialism or Zionism, and these revolts are therefore about internal /local issues and regional concerns. So, how can one make an argument for the relevance of Fanon when he is so absent in public discourses?
NG: It is almost like different levels of abstractions. There is not a one-to-one correspondence; fifty years is the long time to think about a thinker’s relevance or to think of the relevance of their work to a contemporary period. However, in the same way, you could say that there were not very many banners about democracy in the way that liberal democracy or the western kind of democracy understands it and that the pundits have said the revolts were about. Therefore, the signs and slogans in Tahrir may have not been about imperialism, and they may have not reflected the kind of things that the liberal critics wanted to talk about either. But the issue then becomes not to judge things by an a priori anti-imperial discourse. Rather, the first thing is to find out what is being talked about. What are people saying? It was certainly about getting rid of Mubarak. But it was more than that, even if it was not explicit; the point is to trace through the contradictions and developments. Someone who has not read Fanon and who lived through that period, and now reads Fanon, will find out how quickly he or she identifies with his analysis of how the new rulers behave like the old rulers; it is a revolution, yes, but in the old sense of revolving and repeating what was happening before. In one sense, it is how we understand neo-colonialism, but Fanon is not only talking about the threat from imperialism, which is always there, but how the threats are manifested internally. He speaks about a great threat to the decolonial movement being the lack of liberatory ideologies. What does he mean by ideology? Certainly, there are many ideologies around. There are Islamic ideologies; there are nationalist ideologies, neoliberal ideologies, and so forth. He is talking about something else. He has a vision for something else. The subject of the Wretched of the Earth is the wretched of the earth, that majority of the people of the world, who are not only poor, but are actively denied agency and are constantly reminded that politics is above them. How do the wretched of the earth become actional, become political, and become social individuals? Fanon calls his ideology a new humanism, not only in contrast to the elite humanism of the West, but also on the axiom that the wretched of the earth, understood socially, think and thus must be a basis of a new politics. This, of course, is not achieved immediately, but it must become an explicit element of the struggle for liberation. Then there is the question of the role of the intellectual committed to social change. What can the intellectuals do in these periods? So, again we are back to Fanon’s relevance and the difficulty of talking about it in an applied way. First, it is interesting to look at the history of why Fanon is not considered relevant and the fact that postcolonial states have suppressed his thought in one way or another.   Second, the only way we can prove the relevance of Fanon in a certain way outside of some academic circles is to ask, do people involved in social struggles engage with Fanonian concepts and find something relevant for them, even if they have never heard of Fanon because Fanon is implicitly in the struggles? In other words, the idea of a new generation; he has a phrase at the beginning of “On National Consciousness, where he talks about how “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”[1] So, a new generation makes something of him and brings that into the discussion. To me, that would be the only proof of relevance of Fanon. I can make an argument for it, but in the end that would be the test. Now the question is: how would that happen? How do you get Fanon into the public discourse, especially when a lot of the public discourse is limited, and Fanon is considered irrelevant? You face liberal pundits like Hazem Saghieh, who might say that Fanon represents a fifty-year-old politics of violence and imperialism, or other politicians, who might emphasize that Fanon is not a Muslim and is therefore irrelevant to a Muslim society. These are some of the problems with discussing Fanon. Continue reading

The US hand in which Egyptian glove? — Military, or Muslim Brotherhood, or both?

[When the people rose up against the Mubarak compradarchy, some said the US-Mubarak relationship would not be broken.  But soon, the US imperial hegemonists decided to unhinge their prospects from Mubarak, and focus efforts on sidelining the popular revolt by encouraging the Egyptian military to declare “support” for the uprising.  Some said the US now had the new, effective puppet relationship with the military, to further stem popular revolt and prevent Muslim Brotherhood seizure of the the process.  But ongoing struggle discredited the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage and jockeyed for position, and power.  The Obama administration then maneuvered toward rebranding the Muslim Brotherhood “democratic” and finding suitable enticements for the hegemonist’s new Egyptian alliance–and overtly took sides with MB primacy over the military. Yet the people, whose historic Tahrir Square revolt unhinged all the old imperial arrangements, are not satisfied with any of this shell game in the halls of power.  Democratic pretense only works on the gullible, and the people have learned far too much to be taken in.  The wheels will continue to revolve. — Frontlines ed.]

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Egypt: US for Strong Mursi Presidency

By Kimeng Hilton Ndukong, BBC, 16 July 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged the new President to fully assert his authority.

The new Egyptian leader, Mohamed Mursi on Sunday July 15, received a much-needed backing in his standoff with the country’s military when the visiting United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton urged him to assert the full authority of his office.

Clinton on the other hand told the country’s military officers to return to what she described as a purely national security role, after they stepped aside last month, promising to retain wide-ranging legislative and political powers.

Shortly after meeting with the US official for about an hour, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in a rare public rebuke apparently directed at the powerful Moslem Brotherhood to which Mursi belongs, declared that the Armed Forces would not allow people he described as pushed from outside to dominate the country. Al Jazeera Television reported that Tantawi’s comments that were delivered to reporters after a military ceremony in the city of Ismailia, sounded a discordant note after Clinton’s urgings.

Clinton’s discussions with President Mursi on Saturday July 14 focused on the domestic political deadlock and economic development. She pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief, private investment and job creation funds – money the US administration had earlier promised. Clinton said her country’s shared strategic interests far outnumbered differences with Egypt. At a joint news conference with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Amr, the US Secretary of State said her visit to Cairo was to re-affirm the strong support of the United States for the Egyptian people and their democratic transition.

However, on Saturday evening, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Clinton’s Cairo hotel, chanting anti-Islamist and anti-US slogans in protest at her visit. Another protest outside the US Embassy was organised by Coptic Christian youth activists who chanted that Americans and the Moslem Brotherhood could not be trusted, the BBC said.

Egypt: Walls of breaking news-views

by Mona Abaza, Jadalliyya
[Half-Mubarak/Half-Tantawi mural repainted with Amr Mousa and Ahmed Shafiq appearing in the background. Photo by Mona Abaza]
[Half-Mubarak/Half-Tantawi mural repainted with Amr Mousa and Ahmed Shafiq appearing in the background. Photo by Mona Abaza]

The Mohammed Mahmud wall remains alive and kicking through its graffiti, which is getting altered by the hour. The walls continue to be whitened thanks to the efforts of Egyptian authorities. Yet drawings keep on appearing layers after layers to cover the older ones and the white paint. Not only have the walls of Mohammed Mahmud Street become “a memorial space,” as I have noted in a previous contribution, but also a barometer of the Egyptian revolution. The murals seem to be vividly narrating the most recent political turmoil, portraying the state of the arts of the revolution. Sardonic graffiti and abundant insults against counter-revolutionary forces are re-emerging by the hour. Three recent drawings are worthy of attention.


[Half-Mubarak/Half-Tantawi mural before it was erased. Photo by Mona Abaza.]


[Half-Mubarak/Half-Tantawi mural repainted with Amr Mousa and Ahmed Shafiq appearing
in the background. Photo by Mona Abaza] Continue reading

Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood and the Military: A New Deal?

Jul 05 2012 by Salma Shukrallah, http://www.jadaliyya.com

The Egyptian Republican Guard was responsible for president-elect Mohamed Mursi’s safety during his speech in Tahrir Square. Image originally posted to Flickr by Johnathan Rashad

Speculation is rife that the Muslim Brotherhood are again reaching a deal with the ruling military council after weeks of what seemed to be escalating tensions between the two. The long awaited government Morsi is expected to appoint soon may reveal what the two parties will finally agree upon.

While sources at the office of President Mohamed Morsi have revealed that Egypt’s newly-inaugurated head of state has not yet contacted anyone specific for the post of prime minister, analysts hint ongoing negotiations may be the source of this delay.

“There’s broad consensus between the Brotherhood and military leaders on the need to accommodate the military’s longstanding political and economic interests,” political analyst Hesham Sallam told Ahram Online.

“But the devil’s in the details; I don’t think the two sides have reached agreement on specifics,” Sallam added. “Control over cabinet appointments is probably one source of these disagreements.”

On 30 June, Morsi was sworn into office before Egypt’s High Constitutional Court (HCC), bringing an end to an ongoing conflict with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The Brotherhood had earlier rejected a constitutional addendum giving the SCAF legislative powers at the expense of Egypt’s dissolved parliament and keeping the Armed Forces independent of the president. Morsi’s oath before the HCC, however, appeared to signal a retreat from the Brotherhood’s stated position. Continue reading

The Electoral Victory of Political Islam in Egypt

by Samir Amin | Monthly Review | 30 June 2012

The electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the Salafists in Egypt (January 2012) is hardly surprising.  The decline brought about by the current globalization of capitalism has produced an extraordinary increase in the so-called “informal” activities that provide the livelihoods of more than half of the Egyptian population (statistics give a figure of 60%).

And the Muslim Brotherhood is very well placed to take advantage of this decline and perpetuate its reproduction.  Their simplistic ideology confers legitimacy on a miserable market/bazaar economy that is completely antithetical to the requirements of any development worthy of the name.  The fabulous financial means provided to the Muslim Brotherhood (by the Gulf states) allows them to translate this ideology into efficient action: financial aid to the informal economy, charitable services (medical dispensaries etc.).

In this way the Brotherhood establishes itself at the heart of society and induces its dependency.  It has never been the intention of the Gulf countries to support the development of Arab countries, for example through industrial investment.  They support a form of “lumpen development” — to use the term originally coined by André Gunder Frank — that imprisons the societies concerned in a spiral of pauperization and exclusion, which in turn reinforces the stranglehold of reactionary political Islam on society. Continue reading

Al Jazeera video: “Is this the end of Egypt’s revolution?”


Published on Jun 25, 2012 by AlJazeeraEnglish

The decision by Egypt’s electoral commission ends a week of uncertainty in a country without a parliament or a constitution, and a barely functioning economy. There is a new president, the country’s first elected leader. Mohammed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood. Is Egypt’s political limbo over? Guests: Hisham Kassem, Waleed El-Haddad, Adel Darwish.

Egypt’s new president vows unity, but powers are limited

Awaiting election results and power deals, people gathered this weekend in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in a mixed spirit of anticipation, celebration, concern, and revolutionary preparations

CNN, June 25th, 2012

Euphoric jubilation spilled into a second day Monday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where revelers celebrated the election of Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

But with the hopes of the Egyptian revolution resting on President-Elect Mohamed Morsi’s shoulders, the former Muslim Brotherhood member faces an array of challenges both at home and abroad.

For the moment, the presidency is largely a figurehead position as Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) maintains widespread control over the country – just as it has since Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule succumbed to a popular revolt last year.