An African reflection on Tahrir Square by Mahmood Mamdani

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’. First published by Pambazuka.

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.

In Uganda, it has provided the lens through which all participants have made sense of a new form of protest we call ‘Walk to Work’. The immediate background to it was government’s refusal to permit any form of peaceful assembly to protest any aspect of its policy. The one exception was a permit the government granted the Pan African Movement, an organisation that had been set up under the auspices of Presidents Museveni and Gaddafi a couple of decades ago, to march in solidarity with Colonel Gaddafi and the Libyan people and in opposition to NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) bombardment of Libya. The march was to end up as a rally to be addressed by an army commander. But the government changed its mind at the last minute, most think because it realised the demo could be joined by opposition supporters, or for that matter anyone disgruntled with government policy, and so the government decided to teargas and disperse its own demonstration.

Soon after that, the opposition announced that it would resort to a new form of protest: it would walk to work in response to rising fuel and commodity prices. Walk to Work, the opposition said, was not an assembly and so required no police permit. The result was a true theatre of the absurd as police arrested opposition politicians walking to work and then looked for reasons to justify it. Let me give you a few instances from press accounts of the events that followed. Salaamu Musumba, a high opposition official, was walking with one other person, and was stopped by a policeman. ‘Have you no car?’ asked the policeman. Musumba answered, ‘Yes I have.’ ‘Then why are you walking?[1] Musumba was arrested. Asked what was wrong with walking, the information minister suggested that the opposition must have a hidden agenda; if not, why would it not ‘come up with proposals on how to handle the challenges … instead of going to the streets’.[2] The minister of internal affairs said the problem was more sinister. The motive behind Walk to Work was really political, why the organisers should have sought police guidance. But the organisers did not follow official guidelines: ‘Police was not notified, the organisers did not identify themselves, the routes were not agreed to,’ he said. Asked why the police had sprayed schools and health centres with teargas, he said the fault really lay with those walking: ‘some of them, when engaged by the Police, decided to run into schools and health centres to use children and patients as human shields.’[3]

The chief political commissar of the police insisted that since the Walk to Work demo was bound to turn into a procession, the organizers were law-bound to notify the police. ‘I have no quarrel with anybody who wants to walk but it must be in accordance with the law by notifying the Police and agreeing on the routes and maintenance of order.’ Realising the absurdity of calling on people to get a police permit specifying when and where to walk, he added: ‘Many people walk but this has turned into a political matter.’[4]

The Inspector General of Police Major General Kale Kaihura tied himself in knots seeking to explain the distinction between ordinary walking and political walking. Referring to the leading opposition leader, Kiiza Besigye, he said, ‘Besigye can walk. There is no problem and he does not have to notify the Police. However, when he wants to use walking or running as a demonstration, then he has to notify us.’[5] Pressed to explain what was wrong with political walking, the inspector general of police said the opposition’s real intention was to create a Ugandan version of Egypt’s Tahrir Square.[6]

When the uprising we identify with Tahrir Square first happened, media commentators dismissed the very possibility of something similar happening in East Africa. In their view, local society was too ethnically divided to rise up as one. But events have shown that unity does not precede political praxis; it is produced through political struggle. This is why the memory of Tahrir Square today feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears in many an African polity. To paraphrase a 19th-century political philosopher, the spectre of Tahrir Square is coming to haunt Africa’s rulers.

Observers of Europe have seen in Tahrir Square the spread of colour revolutions said to have begun in Eastern Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union. I want to place Tahrir Square in a different context. I propose to look back more than a quarter of a century, really three and a half decades, to an event that occurred on the southern tip of this continent, Soweto. Soweto 1976 signified a turning point in South African struggle. Soweto was identified with the onset of community-based organisation. Three years earlier, in 1973, spontaneous strikes in the city of Durban had sparked initiatives that led to the formation of independent trade unions. Together, Soweto and Durban, community-based organisations and independent trade unions, changed the face of anti-apartheid politics in South Africa.

Soweto 1976 was a youthful uprising. It marked a generational shift. In an era when adult political activists had come to accept as a truism that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative imagination and an alternative mode of struggle. Soweto changed the conventional understanding of struggle from armed to popular struggle. Ordinary people stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, armed guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a popular movement with ordinary people as key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by a new imagination and new methods of struggle. Finally, this new imagination laid the basis for a wider unity.

To understand the efficacy of this new imagination, we need to begin with an understanding of the mode of governance, the mode of rule, to which it was a response. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (whites, Indians, coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on), by governing races and tribes, and even each tribe, through a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to remove or reform the law in question, those opposed to apartheid organised and acted separately: the whites as Congress of Democrats, coloureds as the Coloured People’s Congress, Indians as the South African Indian Congress and Africans as the African National Congress (ANC). Each of these qualifiers – coloureds, Indians and Africans – mirrored how the official census named each population groups.

In this context came a new person, a visionary leader, Steve Biko, at the helm of a new movement, the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko’s message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a colour, said Biko, black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are black. In the South African context, this was indeed a revolutionary message. The ANC had spoken of non-racialism as early as the Freedom Charter in 1955. But the ANC’s non-racialism only touched the political elite. Whereas individual white and Indian and coloured members of the political elite joined the ANC as individuals, ordinary people continued to be trapped by a political perspective that continued to reflect the same old narrow racial and tribal boundaries. The point about Biko was that he forged a popular vision with the potential to cut through these boundaries.

Ten years later, in 1987, occurred another event reminiscent of Soweto. This was the Palestinian intifada. The first intifada had a Soweto-like potential. Like the children of Soweto, the youth of Palestine too shed the romance of armed struggle. They dared to face bullets with no more than stones. Faced with feuding liberation movements, each claiming to be a sole representative of the oppressed people, the youth of the intifada called for a wider unity. I am suggesting that we see Soweto and the first intifada as political antecedents of Tahrir Square.


Even though Tahrir Square has come more than three decades after Soweto, it evokes the memory of Soweto in a powerful way. This is so for a number of reasons. One, like Soweto 1976, Tahrir Square in 2011 too shed a generation’s romance with violence. The generation of Nasser and after had embraced violence as key to fundamental political and social change. This tendency was secular at the outset. But the more Nasser turned to justifying suppressing the opposition in the language of secular nationalism, the more the opposition began to speak in a religious idiom. The most important political tendency calling for a surgical break with the past spoke the language of radical political Islam. Its main representative in Egypt was Said Qutb. I would like briefly to look at Qutb as the standard bearer of radical political Islam.

I became interested in radical political Islam after 9/11, which is when I read Sayyid Qutb’s most important political book, ‘Signposts’. It reminded me of the grammar of radical politics at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970s, when I was a young lecturer there. Sayyid Qutb says in the introduction to ‘Signposts’ that he wrote the book for an Islamic vanguard; I thought I was reading a version of Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done’. Sayyid Qutb’s main argument in the text is that you must make a distinction between friends and enemies, because with friends you use persuasion and with enemies you use force. I thought I was reading Mao Zedong on the correct handling of contradictions amongst the people. Later, at Columbia, I realised that I could also have been reading the German philosopher Karl Schmidt. In all these cases, the point of politics is to identify, isolate and eliminate the enemy, which is also why violence as a method of struggle is central to politics.

I asked myself: how should I understand Sayyid Qutb? In the context of 9/11, the question had a triple significance. The first concerned the relationship between culture and politics. Official public intellectuals in post-9/11 US insisted that one’s politics reflects one’s culture. Second was a claim that civilisations develop in separate containers – one Muslim, the other Christian, a third Hindu and so on, each closeted from the other, so that democracy and Islam belong to separate containers. Democracy in the public sphere requires that you leave Islam at home. Only secular Muslims could be worthy citizens of a democratic republic.

Third, underlying their claim was the assumption that there are two kinds of culture – modern and pre-modern, in the contemporary world. Modern culture changes. It is capable of reflexivity and internal debate. Able to identify and remove its weaknesses and build on its strengths, it is historically progressive. In contrast, pre-modern culture is traditional and static. It functions not only as an inheritance at birth but as a sort of life sentence. The bearer of this culture suffers as if from a twitch, so that culture is like an unthinking response to external events. I was familiar with a version of this literature in my reading of African politics. But I sensed something new in the post-9/11 literature. Africans were said to be pre-modern, and so would need to be tutored. Arabs, unlike Africans, were said to be anti-modern, the real other of modernity, they would have to be contained rather than tutored, quarantined and watched carefully. The violence of 9/11 said to be a prime example of this anti-modern culture.

I was critical of this perspective, this kind of understanding of the development of discourses through history. Is the history of thought best understood inside separate civilisational containers? Should I understand Sayyid Qutb’s thought inside a linear tradition called political Islam? Or do I also need to understand as part of a wider debate that cut across discursive traditions and defined his times? Was not Sayyid Qutb’s embrace of political violence in line with a growing embrace of armed struggle in movements of national liberation in the 1950s and 1960s – most accepting the claim that armed struggle was not only the most effective form of struggle but also the only genuine mode of struggle?

I had little doubt that Sayyid Qutb was involved in multiple conversations. He was involved in multiple debates, not only with Islamic intellectuals, whether contemporary or belonging to previous generations, but also with contending intellectuals from other modes of political thought. And the main competition then was Marxism–Leninism, a militantly secular ideology which seemed to influence both his language and his understanding of organisation and struggle.

I would like to explore further what it means to shed the romance with revolutionary violence. It means to move away from a reified notion of friend and enemy, of good and evil, where the enemy was evil and had to be eliminated. The language of evil comes from a particular religious tradition, one that has been secularised over time: you cannot live with evil, you cannot convert it, you must eliminate it. The struggle against evil is necessarily a violent struggle. I first came across this tradition when I read Tomaz Mastenak’s history of the Crusades, and I when I read it, I understood the difference between modern notions of pre-modern and anti-modern culture: pre-modern primitive was open to conversion, but the anti-modern was not; it would have to be eliminated.

The second resemblance between Soweto and Tahrir Square was on the question of unity. Just as the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa had uncritically reproduced the division between races and tribes as institutionalised in state practices, so it seemed to me that mainstream politics in Egypt had politicised religious difference. Tahrir Square, I thought, innovated a new politics. It shed the language of religion as central to politics but it did so without embracing a militant secularism that would outlaw religion in the public sphere. Instead, it seemed to call for a broad tolerance of cultural identities in the public sphere, one that would include both secular and religious tendencies. The new contract seemed based not on exclusion but inclusion – those who seek to participate in the public sphere must practice an inclusive politics with respect to others. The violence against the Coptic Christian minority in the weeks before Tahrir Square suggested that sectarian violence was often initiated by those in power, but without an effective antidote, it tended to rip through the social fabric.

Tahrir Square shared a third significance with Soweto. Soweto forced many people around the world to rethink their notions of Africa and the African. Before Soweto, the convention was to assume that violence was second nature with Africans who were incapable of living together peacefully. Before Tahrir Square, and particularly after 9/11, official discourse and media representations, particularly in the West, were driven by the assumption that Arabs were genetically predisposed not only to violence, but also to discrimination against anyone different.


I think of the common political history of the Middle East as defined by Ottoman rule. The millet system that defined Ottoman governance was in many ways similar to British indirect rule which it preceded. If the millet system politicised religious identity, British indirect rule politicised ethnicity as tribal identity. The millet system created a religiously sanctioned form of political authority inside the community, just as British indirect rule created an ethnically sanctioned form of political authority inside the community it politicised. If the millet system politicised religious identity, British indirect rule politicised ethnic or tribal identity. The African experience suggests that the key question faced by post-colonial societies is political: what are the boundaries of the political community? Who is a South African? Who is a Ugandan? Who an Egyptian? Is the Egyptian identity Islamic, or Arab, or territorial, so that we may say, as a paraphrase of the 1955 Freedom Charter of South Africa, that Egypt belongs to all those who live in it? What is at stake?

At stake is citizenship – who belongs and who does not, who has a right to rights and who does not. I would like to illustrate the argument with the example of Sudan. I want to focus on two official attempts to define the basis of nationhood and thus citizenship in Sudan, the first a claim that the nation is Muslim, and the second that the nation is Arab. Following these claims came two critiques of these nation-building and citizenship projects, one internal and the other external, but each claiming to formulate a critique from the vantage point of those disenfranchised by these projects.

I should like to begin with Ustad Mahmoud Mohamed Taha’s critique of the Islamist political project. The interesting point is that Ustad Mahmoud did not dismiss the possibility of a democratic Islamic political project, in fact he posed it as an alternative to the official Islamist project identified with Hassan Turabi. Ustad Mahmoud’s critique was an internal critique. Calling for an alternative project, he formed an alternative organisation to the Muslim Brothers, called Republican Brothers. I am not sure why he called it that for, in spite of its name, Republican Brothers included both brothers and sisters. Ustad Mahmoud’s alternative was based on two claims.

Ustad Mahmoud distinguished between the Quran as a holy text and every reading of it as human and earthly. This distinguished the sacred text from its reading which was seen as a human interpretation. Taha’s interpretation was provided in his book, ‘The Second Message of Islam’. The argument is not unfamiliar to Egyptian ears or to students of tafsir. The Quran contains two messages, each a response to a different context – Mecca and Medina. The prophet preached in Mecca and formulated legislation in Medina. The Meccan message focused on morality – and was thus transhistorical. In contrast, the message in Medina was bound to the specific needs of the society. This body of legislation, known as the Sharia, was more time-bound than any other part of the Quran. The challenge, claimed Ustad Mahmoud, was to rethink the legislation in Medina in light of the moral vision of Mecca, that all are equal before God, man and woman, nation and nation, tribe and tribe. Taha identified two key challenges in an Islamic polity: the rights of non-Muslims, and the rights of women.

I want to locate the debate on Islam and politics in a wider context. That context is the wider debate of culture and politics in the post-colonial world. What is the relationship of culture, whether its cutting edge be religion or ethnicity, to politics?

It seems to me that two contrasting views have been formulated over the colonial and post-colonial view. The first is the modernist view that tradition – and religion or ethnicity as an integral part of it – must be banished to the private sphere to create the space for a democratic public sphere. We may call the second view nativist. It calls for a return to origins, to the period before colonialism, to the genuine and authentic history and culture of the colonised as the anchor from which to fashion a response to the modern world. It seems to me that just as the first view, militant modernism, is unable to make sense of pre-colonial history, militant nativism, the second view, is unable to come to grips with the colonial experience, especially the experience of the millet system and indirect rule which fashioned from the domain of the culture of the colonised resources for the colonial project. It thus created a single and authoritative authority said to be culturally legitimate with the right to define and enforce the official version of culture, whether as religious or ethnic.

Here then is the challenge for us: just as colonial powers found inside Islam and other religions and ethnic cultures the resources for an authoritarian colonial political project, we too must return to that same history of culture and find inside it resources necessary for a democratic political project. Neither a demonising of that history as militant modernism is apt to do, nor its romanticisation, as is the case with militant nativism, will do. The response will have to be a more analytic and critical embrace of that history.

I want to move on to John Garang’s critique of Arabism as a political project. Garang is the foundational thinker of the Southern Sudanese struggle of both Islamism and Arabism as political projects in Sudan. Garang wrote against a backdrop where the dominant critique of Arabism either highlighted the question of geography or that of race. The first claimed that, as a fact of geography, Sudan is an African, and not an Arab, country. The second found the identity of Sudan better identified by race. Sudan, it said, is an African country, a country for Africans, where Arabs can only be welcomed as guests. If you are an Arab, you are not an African and, vice versa, if you are an African, you cannot be an Arab. It went on to conclude that the problem with most northern Sudanese is that they fail to accept that they are Arabised Africans, really Africans and not Arabs. This failure to understand the true nature of their selves – their self-identity, this false consciousness – is really a sign of self-hatred. Those who claim to be Sudanese Arabs are really self-hating Africans.

Only against this prevailing mode of thought can we understand the truly subversive, and liberating, character of Garang’s thought. Garang began by identifying how the failure to address the problem of political identity directly led to refuge in notions of culture and race. I will quote from his historic speech to the conference of Sudanese oppositional movements at Koka Dam: ‘I present to this historic conference that our major problem is that the Sudan has been looking for its soul, for its true identity. Failing to find it … some take refuge in Arabism, and failing to find this, they find refuge in Islam as a uniting factor. Others get frustrated as they fail to discover how they can become Arabs when their creator thought otherwise. And they take refuge in separation.’ He then goes on to distinguish culture from politics: the cultural is not territorial, but the political is. The problem with cultural nationalism is that it confuses the two: culture and territory. ‘We are a product of historical development. Arabic (though I am poor in it – I should learn it fast) must be the national language in a new Sudan, and therefore we must learn it. Arabic cannot be said to be the language of the Arabs. No, it is the language of the Sudan. English is the language of the Americans, but that country is America, not England. Spanish is the language of Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, and they’re those countries, not Spain… We are serious about the formation of a new Sudan, a new civilization that will contribute to the Arab world and to the African world and to the human civilization. Cross fertilization of civilization has happened historically and we are not going to separate whose civilization this and this is, it may be inseparable.’ Here was a clear alternative to the political project called ‘The clash of civilisations.’


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?


* Professor Mahmood Mamdani is the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research.
* The article is the text of a keynote speech at the Annual Research Conference on ‘Social justice: theory, research and practice’, at the American University of Cairo, Cairo, 5 May 2011.
* Please send comments to gro.akuzabmap@rotide or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] John Nagenda, ‘To walk or not to walk,’ Saturday Vision, 16 April 2011, p. 8
[2] Saturday Vision, 16 April 2011, p. 2
[3] New Vision, April 15, 2011, p. 3
[4] Daily Monitor, April 14, 2011, p. 2
[5] New Vision, April 14, 2011, p. 14. When the Opposition insisted on continuing to Walk to Work, every Monday and Thursday, the official Communication Commission [UCC] sent verbal instructions directing radio and television stations to stop running live coverage of the events. Daily Monitor, April 15, 2011, p. 3
[6] ‘MPs Plot Hunger Strike,’ The Observer, April 14-17, 2011, p. 3n2011-05-12, Issue 529


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