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

Protesters Celebrate Departure of Yemen’s Leader

Jun 5, 2011 by AssociatedPress

Protesters danced and sang in the central square of Yemen’s capital Sunday to celebrate the departure of the country’s authoritarian leader for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound. (June 5)

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Yemen opposition to stop Saleh return

Monday, June 06, 2011

Yemen’s opposition has vowed to work to prevent the return of beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen’s opposition has vowed to work to prevent the return of beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen’s opposition vowed on Sunday to work to prevent the return of beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh, transferred to Saudi Arabia for treatment of injuries sustained in an explosion.

‘We will work with all our strength to prevent his return,’ parliamentary opposition spokesman Mohammed Qahtan told AFP. ‘We see this as the beginning of the end of this tyrannical and corrupt regime.’ Continue reading

US-compliant Yemeni president ‘injured’ after palace shelled; US, Saudi’s preparing his replacement


Jun 3, 2011 by itnnews

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been ‘slightly injured’ say officials after his palace was reportedly shelled.
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[The article from the Guardian, below, describes the shifting terms of the struggle in Yemen–which began as a popular uprising against a brutal, repressive regime, and now has special attention from the US and Saudi Arabia, who are intent on having a controlling hand in the government and military powers that emerge after Yemeni President Saleh’s probable-impending demise.  This has some similarity with the process in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, after the eruption of people’s revolts, where the US moved, rather clumsily, to drop relations with compliant and allied dictators Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi, and moved to control the emerging new forces in a process of moving from imperialist “business as usual” to finessing claims of “concern for humanitiarian issues” and “democracy”, to ensuring the bottom line: strategic control of the political economy, through corrupt surrogates, military intervention, racketeering, and starvation.  For the people, getting rid of Saleh, as with Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi, is only one part of getting rid of imperialism and all reactionaries (including other styles of reactionaries like al Qaeda).  Developing revolutionary forces with clear-sighted political independence and initiatives is the only immediate objective which leads forward. — Frontlines ed.]

Yemen slides towards all-out war after President Saleh survives rocket attack

Government claims attack on presidential compound was ‘attempted coup’ as fighting intensifies in Sana’a

Ian Black, Middle East editor and Shatha al-Harazi in Sana’a
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 June 2011

The latest violence in Yemen is likely to lead to Saudi Arabian calls for Saleh to step down. Photograph: Hani Mohammed/AP

Yemen‘s embattled president survived an apparent attempt to kill him on Friday as fighting intensified in Sana’a amidst warnings that the country is sliding inexorably into all-out war. Continue reading

Security forces open fire on protesters in southern Yemen

Yemeni anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the departure. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Yemeni anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the departure.

Jun 2, 2011

Sana’a/Cairo – Yemeni security forces opened fire on protesters in the southern city of Taiz calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign, as fighting continued in the capital Sana’a on Thursday.

Dozens of people have been killed in Taiz this week, as security forces repeatedly used violence to disperse protesters gathered in al-Hurreya square.

In Sana’a, at least 15 people were killed in overnight fighting between security forces and tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar. Continue reading

In the Belly of the Beast: How the Middle East events affect us

Nina Farnia on how the Middle East events affect us

In a program in Oakland, California in February 2011 — sponsored by The Committee to Stop FBI Repression — Nina Farnia spoke about the relationship of events in the Middle East to people in the US — people of Middle East origin and descent, and US solidarity activists.

For more information on government repression of Middle Eastern people and of international solidarity activists, see stopfbi.net

This is a video from Collision Course Video Productions of San Francisco.

Yemen: Anti-government protests have grown much larger than Saleh’s support

Yemen sees huge rival protests

AlJazeeraEnglish on Apr 15, 2011

Hundreds of thousands gather in Yemen’s capital Sanaa to show support for President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But protests opposing his continuing rule reportedly draw millions to the streets of 16 provinces around the country, after religious and tribal leaders join calls for him to step down.
Hakim Almasmari, editor in chief of the Yemen Post, speaks to Al Jazeera.
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Thousands of Yemeni women protest over Saleh remarks
REUTERS, Sat Apr 16, 2011
By Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) – Thousands of Yemeni women protested in Sanaa and other cities on Saturday, enraged by President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s remarks it was against Islam for women to join men in the demonstrations aimed at toppling him.

The women, many clad in black Islamic dress with full face veils, said their role in protests was religiously sound and called on the president to step down in line with nearly three months of demonstrations demanding his ouster. “It seems that President Saleh failed in all his efforts to employ tribes and security to strike at those seeking his exit, and so he resorted to using religion, especially after he saw that thousands of women were taking part in protests,” said Samia al-Aghbari, a leader in the protest movement. Saleh, who has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced out before organising an orderly transition, urged the opposition on Friday to reconsider their refusal to join talks to resolve the crisis in the fractious state. Continue reading

Open letter: I wish you Egypt!

by Omar Barghouti

I wish you empowerment to resist; to fight for social and economic justice; to win your real freedom and equal rights.

I wish you the will and skill to break out of your carefully concealed prison walls. See, in our part of the world, prison walls and thick inviolable doors are all too overt, obvious, over-bearing, choking; this is why we remain restive, rebellious, agitated, and always in preparation for our day of freedom, of light, when we gather a critical mass of people power enough to cross all the hitherto categorical red lines.

We can then smash the thick, cold ugly, rusty chains that have incarcerated our minds and bodies for all our lives like the overpowering stench of a rotting corpse in our claustrophobic prison cell.

Your prison cells, however, are quite different. The walls are well hidden lest they evoke your will to resist. There is no door to your prison cell–you may roam about “freely,” never recognizing the much larger prison you are still confined to. Continue reading