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The problem with Africans and Arabs

Elleni Centime Zeleke

2011-03-16, Issue 521

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There are 4 comments on this article.

cc K M
The North African revolts have seen Arab countries portrayed as somehow separate from the rest of Africa. Elleni Centime Zeleke critiques the trend and exposes in whose interests it works.

The way the term Arab is being thrown around these days is enough to give a person reason to pause while celebrating the victories of the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. After all, in the present context of social revolt in North Africa there has been a deliberate effort to erase the fact that Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are all continental African countries.

Moreover, to call one's self Black or African or Arab is to use identity markers that are not indigenous to Africans or even the vast majority of people we now call Arab. The question then is: who uses these identities and when? No doubt, mobilising these identities can be useful for making certain kinds of political claims that advance the needs of African and Arab peoples. But still, we need to always ask for whom is this mobilisation happening.

Cutting off the historical ties between so-called Arabs and so-called Africans (by which we mean Black people, as if those kinds of people are easily identifiable) is a trick of Orientalist historiography. And, as the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said has taught us, Orientalism is a Western style of thought first invented in the 18th century that was used to ‘dominate, restructure and have authority’ over the area we now call the Middle East.

The problem with this style of thought is that it posits Arabs and Africans as having fixed and distinct qualities that mark them off as different from both Europeans as well as each other. So investigating the problem of Orientalist methodology is not just about raising the bogeyman of identity politics; rather, if we don't, what ends up happening is that Orientalist methods are often blindly adopted to conceal the multiple historical, political, and economic ties that connect so-called Black people to browner looking people.

For example, Yemeni ancient and contemporary history has deep connections with Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians across the Red Sea (20km), but the way the story gets told you would think Yemen was closer to Libya, and that the west side of the Red Sea could be skipped in any story about Arabs. I would venture to say this is ridiculous. And I really don't think we should accept Orientalist methods when thinking about what is an Arab or an African.

In fact, neither Arab identity or Black identity is self-evident. Instead, the parameters of identity shift over time and are negotiated within the context of changing political and economic processes. We need to be vigilant about how identity is produced as a sediment of these various political, economic and social processes and not simply assert it as something given, or else we will only sound defencive and silly when we do.

The fact of the matter is that Egypt as a modern nation-state is deeply connected to the developmental ambitions and contradictions set in play by Mohammed Ali, who was an Albanian commander that ruled over Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Empire but who eventually became the independent ruler of Egypt in the early part of the 19th century.

What is important to note about Mohammed Ali is that he was the first non-Western leader who really tried to catch up with the industrialised West, and in trying to catch up with the West he colonised present day Sudan, transforming the political-economy of Egypt from small-scale peasant based production towards cash crop based export oriented production.

Egyptian cotton became the main export commodity of this new economy, with Sudan providing a source of cheap slave labour. Mohammed Ali attempted to use cotton as the basis for industrialising Egypt, though he did not industrialise Sudan. But precisely because Mohammed Ali’s project was intimately tied to Sudan, chattel slavery, and cotton production, one cannot separate the developmental trajectories of Egypt from its larger continental African connection and questions of race.

Indeed, since the time of Mohammed Ali and the initiation of a trade in chattel slavery, race has begun to operate in a peculiar way in the region's history. More specifically, the slave trade has played a role in the racialisation of 'Africans' and 'Arabs'.

What this means is that we cannot reference abstract identities like ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ as if they are outside real political and economic processes. And since the transformation of Egypt into a modern nation-state is intimately tied to its ‘African’ developmental trajectories we need to name it as such.

It should also be noted that in large measure because Mohammed Ali’s industrialisation of Egypt ended up as a failed project, from the 1870’s until 1952 Mohammed Ali’s offspring were forced to rule Sudan and Egypt with the English in what was known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. It was not until Nasser's free-officer revolution in Egypt in 1952 that we really saw the end of Anglo-Egyptian rule in Sudan. In fact Nasser's regime was an attempt to resolve the contradictions of the developmental trajectories set in place by Mohammed Ali, his offspring and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium - the promise of nationalism of course being that you could democratise development on behalf of all of the nation’s people. But as such, Egyptian independence was always tied to a very ambivalent relationship to Sudan and vice-versa.

Importantly, then, if this present revolution is not going to simply sink back into neo-liberal hell we need to seriously think through Egypt’s regional political and economic formation. This is particularly the case since Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat (Egypt’s president from 1970 until his assassination in 1981) and Hosni Mubarak (who succeeded Sadat and against whom the Egyptian people took to the streets) are also failed attempts at speaking to the very same developmental patterns that have historical roots and that Nasser tried to address.

Moreover, the revolution in present day Egypt not only signals the failure of post-colonial arrangements, but it also signals the failure of a third world project that Nasser articulated in tandem with people like Kwame Nkrumah and Josip Tito. Partly this project failed because it was elitist, but more importantly that elitism failed to interrogate national developmental trajectories and to build a truly inclusive popular nationalism (as our friend Frantz Fanon might say).

In the case of Libya, then, we should be aware that Gadaffi was a major player in African politics. So much so that he nearly convinced the African Union (AU) to move the seat of the organisation to Libya. But again his involvement in politics was not just symbolic; Gadaffi's money and weapons are involved in nearly every major conflict on the continent of Africa from Sierra-Leone to the conflicts in Chad and Sudan. The political economy of Libya is also such that it relies on the importation of large amounts of migrant labourers from the African continent as well as South Asia.

Historically, of course, Tripoli was also an important destination in the trans-Saharan trade routes (whose starting point lay in the forest regions of ‘darkest’ Africa) bringing important trading goods to Libya that were then exported to the Mediterranean world and beyond. These historical ties are what Gadaffi himself has mobilised in justification for why the AU should be based in Libya.

In contrast to this, in the media coverage that has reported on the use of paid African mercenaries brought into fire on the anti-Gadaffi protestors, we have been led to believe that there is a yawning gap between ‘Black’ mercenaries and the rest of civilised Libya. But, the claim about the use of Black African mercenaries should be viewed with caution. After all, the constitution of Libya outside of an African context is an Orientalist fallacy (and fantasy) that obscures the real histories of these places and can only play to a violently racist hand.

A few nights ago someone suggested to me that what tied Arabs together was a shared language and culture. But spoken Arabic is not always intelligible to other Arabic speakers. In Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia other linguistic practices exist which help form the locally spoken Arabic, but also remind us of other kinds of historical and cultural connections that make up these places (too diverse and complicated to get into now). I also remember being schooled by an Egyptian in Cairo, about why Egyptians are not Arabs. So again, I would venture to say things are complicated and this is not just a matter of identity politics. Instead, it seems that the Afro-centrics speak a kernel of truth when they state that present historical methods tend to elide the myriad Afro-Arab connections.

However, because the Afro-centrics are an African-American school of thought and because they refuse to periodise their claims about the historical formation of race in different places, they end up making sweeping statements that projects American cultural history on to the rest of the world. Can we really accept the claim that an inherently racist attitude towards Black people is constitutive of an Arab or Islamic identity in the way it is for white people in the Americas? Yet, just because such a claim seems implausible it should not make it easy for us to dismiss the point that we need to pay attention to the way race has been operationalised in the framing of the present North African revolutions.

Indeed, because I don't want to go Afro-centric, I think it is better if we think through the production of contradictory histories. So, while I would suggest that we need to not rewrite the history of the world as a footnote to America's cultural wars, at the same time, we need to see that the rest of the world has increasingly come to see itself in highly racialised terms. This too needs to be explained, but I would suggest that we probably should not turn to the use of cultural categories such as Arab or Islam to explain the rise of a notion of ‘Arab’ that is distinct from ‘African’. Instead we want to link these identities back to political-economy. But for now we also need to take seriously the kernel of protest and truth that the Afro-centric folks speak about and build on it. Race does lie at the heart of many of these so-called Arab revolutions in very complicated ways. Let’s not sweep this under the carpet in the name of self-righteous indignation or else we will add one more substantive reason for why these revolutions might come to naught.


* Elleni Centime Zeleke is an adjunct lecturer in African Studies at York University. [email protected].
* (An earlier version of this article was posted on the blog site Relentlessly Progressive Political Economy.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

Uhuru comrades I have just finshed reading yor article and we need to understand the fact that today we live in a socitey that is judged by race. While it would be nice if we didn't live in such a society we need to understand the fact that we do not. History has point out that race has been used to justify the muder, rape and enslavement of African people in the past and in the present. We also need to understand the fact that we are the orignal Arabs in that we have been lied to time after time about our history. As a Pan-African I belive deeply in my heart that the only way we are going to free ourselves is if we struggle to free ourselves from white domination. Freedom is ours if we take it!

Abdul Jabbar Caliph

I believe what the author is alluding to is that we need to stop oversimplifying African and Arab history as well as ethnicity. And what the previous comment (Sayeed Mulagata ) must understand is that, the history of the Americas is just as complex, for racism is intertwined with classism, ethnicity, and religious-affiliation, and not merely a split between whites and Blacks, but more importantly an issue amongst non-whites and between people of African descent in general. Throughout the Americas there are a multitude of subtle but important differences in how nationality, race, racism, color, and discrimination are defined and exercised that still impedes Pan African unity amongst African Diasporans in the “New World”. White European colonist and neo-colonials have either created or exploited these differences all over the world, making sure all oppressed non-white-European peoples emphasize their historical conflicts rather than any common interest, but interesting enough, we all suppose to develop some type of common interest with Western civilization.

We know that, the Arab language, its cultural base, and Islam did not derive from the white Indo-European Asiatic caste that’s empowered throughout the Arab world, so there is definitely more to this picture than what meets the eye.

Indo-European derived racism imposed upon Arab culture, Africans, and Islam can only be defeated with the truth!


This article is beneath Pambazuka's high standard. And the writer is openly hostile to African identity -- in a 'Pan-African' publication. What does this add to the discussion RE: Libya and the protests in the Arab-populated African states? And what does it add to African political questions?

This piece is not much more than a rant, and shouldn't be here.


The author dismisses the claim that Arab and Muslim Culture are inherently racist just as white culture in the Americas without providing us evidence for that dismissal. The lynchings of West Africans and Black Libyans in Libya, the discrimination against African identified Sudanese by Arab identified Sudanese provides enough evidence for a reasonable person to raise this question.
It is not enough to dismiss this outlook because the Afro-Centrist hold it.

Sayeed Mulagata

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