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Kuwait summit and the future of Afro-Arabian relations

January 24, 2014 at 3:13 am

There is no doubt that the unbiased spirit of Bandung and the visions of national liberation leaders such as Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and Gamal Abdel Nasser have revived the concept of “Afro-Arabia” which embodies the organic and cultural links between the African and Arab worlds. This prompted Kenya’s most prominent thinker, Ali Mazrui, to say that “Afro-Arabia” goes beyond its cultural and political concepts and refers to the blood ties and direct geographical contact between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa by the geological formation of the Red Sea.

However, this historical opportunity for Afro-Arabian solidarity passed us by after the death of those who lived and fought for it. The Afro-Arabian solidarity movement was revived in the seventies when its supporters focused on the importance of political cooperation and economic partnership between the Arab and African worlds, which was illustrated by the first Afro-Arabian summit in Cairo in 1977.

The optimism over the return of Afro-Arabia faded quickly in the eighties, which was described as the period of missing development in Africa. That was also the beginning of Egypt’s isolation from its African hinterland, in addition to the tension in areas of contact between the Arabs and Africans, such as South Sudan, the Chad-Libya conflict and the problem in the Western Sahara. As such, another chance to revive the modern Afro-Arabian movement was lost.

The second Afro-Arabian summit calls for both reflection and astonishment. It was held in Sirte, Libya in 2010, and was revived, unusually, due to the personal ambitions of the late Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

He had tried to implement his vision of leadership in the context of the Arab national project, but failed to do so. In an opportunistic move, he turned to non-Arab Africa, and used everything, including money, in order to be entrusted with Abdel Nasser’s African legacy.

I believe that the biggest achievement of the summit in Sirte was the agreement to hold a gathering every three years, which was fulfilled by the third summit held in Kuwait earlier this month, on November 19-20.

Can the Kuwait summit stop the bleeding of lost opportunities of Arab-African cooperation? Does the meeting of Arabs and Africans for the first time in a solely Arab capital (Cairo is both Arab and African) suggest the establishment of relations between the two on new foundations in a manner that revives that lost optimism about the future of joint Arab and African ventures?

A new geo-strategic formation

There is no doubt that the motives for Arab and African cooperation and solidarity are clearer today than at any other time. Some may think that the Arab Spring revolutions experienced by Arab regimes in 2011 is a major weak point in the modern Arab geo-strategy, whereas some African countries are gaining regional and international status think South Africa, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia and that this harms the balance of power between the Arabs and Africans.

However, a close reading of the geo-strategic scene in the Arab and African zone during the post-Cold War phase indicates a process of re-structuring and re-formation that hasn’t occurred since the early national liberation years. In this context, we can point out the most prominent features of this change.

First, we have the return of a new international scramble for resources and influence in Africa, albeit through new mechanisms and forces that differ from those in the late nineteenth century. In addition to the old colonial powers, such as Britain and France, new forces have emerged, such as China, India and Brazil, to re-distribute power and influence. This brings to mind the political significance of what has become known in the jurisprudence of international relations as the “Fashoda syndrome”, which refers to France’s pursuit of influence in areas under British control.

We then had the militarisation of many of the hotbeds of the Arab-African conflict through the interference of US and Western forces, and in some cases through African agents on a regional level. Here, I am referring to the models of French intervention in the Ivory Coast and northern Mali, the Western intervention in Libya, and African and international intervention in Darfur and Somalia.

After that came the reproduction of old colonial policies in Africa through the adoption of the principles of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect civilians, as well as using the United Nations as a platform for the implementation of these new Western policies. In this we can note the double standards of international justice, as the four cases being considered by the International Criminal Court are all African.

Finally, there is the employment of the logic of dismantling and restructuring a new geo-strategic formation for the Arab and African world, such as supporting the division of South Sudan and trying to break up what is left of Sudan, as well as the imposition of international will to establish the sectarian dissolution in Somalia. The latter will give “legitimacy” to dividing the country into three regions: north, central, and south. In addition to this, there is support for some African mergers such as the new formation of an East African group led by Kenya.

If we keep in mind that the Arab regional system has been subjected to major tremors since the international intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, invoking memories of the first Nakba in 1948, we realise the importance of Arab and African solidarity in order to reshape the geo-strategic formation of the two regions for the benefit of the people rather than foreign interests and agendas.

It is known that there are major challenges facing the Kuwait summit, notably Israel’s desperate attempt to win observer status at the African Union, which is backed by some countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. Also, Egypt, which has supported the modern Afro-Arabian concept since the very beginning, attended the summit in Kuwait only as an Arab state due to the freezing of its membership of the African Union after the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 this year.

Politicisation of Afro-Arabism

Former Guinean president Ahmed Sékou Touré said during a brief moment of enthusiasm for an Afro-Arab revolution, “Our support for Arab causes stems from the concept of Arab-African solidarity, which has always constituted a fundamental pillar of the Guinean policy. This support is not dependent on any financial rewards paid to us by the Arabs… I would like to say to those who argue that we deal with the Arabs for money that we are religious people, who believe in God, and we have a deep sense of dignity and responsibility… we are not opportunists or beggars, despite the fact we are poor.”

Although the first Afro-Arab summit that was held in Cairo institutionalised cooperation between the Arab and African sides through the establishment of the Ministerial Council which holds its sessions every 18 months, as well as the Presidential Council which holds its meetings every three years, and the Standing Committee on Afro-Arab Cooperation, these efforts have failed for three main reasons.

The first was the predominance of the language of barter, or to be more precise, the language of extortion in the Arab-African dialogue. Arab aid was conditional on the need for African countries to back Arab issues, especially the Palestinian cause, either directly or indirectly.

The second reason was the absence of an Egyptian role. After the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979, Egypt’s membership of the Arab League was frozen, which meant the absence of the driving force behind joint Arab-African work.

Third, we saw the ignition of tension and worrying over the borders where Arab and African countries meet. The issues of the Western Sahara between Morocco and Algeria, Gaddafi’s adventures in Chad, and the civil war in south Sudan were all elements of the division that did away with any hopes for Afro-Arab solidarity.

Although Afro-Arabism was revived after the beginning of the new millennium and changes were made to the collective African security system in 2002, the second Afro-Arabian summit in Sirte in 2010 was unable to restore relations between the Arabs and Africans.

The political considerations continued to dominate the strategic dialogue between the two sides, and the relationship suffered from the absence of the concepts of equality and partnership which expressed the historical bias towards the influence of the north (Arabs) over the south (Africans).

Future of a new partnership

It seems that the history of the Arab presence in Africa is full of contradictions and, in the words of Ali Mazrui, the Arabs were conquerors and liberators who brought with them Islam and trade. At the time that they were involved in the slave trade, they also brought new ideas and insights to Africa.

If Islam was historically a unifying factor, then some of the applied experiences of Islam today have become a cause of division and rivalry. This is reflected in the experiences of Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia, and the Salafi Jihadists in northern Mali.

Afro-Arabism today, as expressed by the Kuwait summit, needs to overcome those negative mental images in order to build a new partnership based on equality and the sharing of common experiences. This will correct historical imbalances in the relationship, which took a unilateral turn, expressing the clear Arab dominance. The Kuwait summit did well in using the title “Partners in development and investment” to reflect this shift in the desired modern Afro-Arab path.

Despite this, the new economic partnership between the Arabs and Africans, which depends on the success of the summit in Kuwait, is associated with the adoption of three basic matters.

For a start, the dominant cultural politics and media discourse on both sides must erase the effects of the negative mental images and historical experiences. We need to strengthen the role of the Arab-African Cultural Institute, founded in 2002 in Mali. The only achievements it has made to-date is the creation of a mural and statue of Ibn Battuta in the heart of its capital city Bamako.

Second, we have the matter of security policies and the unacceptability of foreign intervention in regional issues. We have seen that the dispute over the Nile waters, especially the escalation of tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding a new dam, as well as armed conflicts in Darfur and Somalia, have all involved intervention by international actors. These have included the United States and Israel, which damages the collective security systems of Arabs and Africans alike.

Perhaps such issues and policies require real strategic dialogue between the two sides far from the language of arrogance and intolerance.

Finally, there is the matter of sustainable development policies that achieve the aspirations of the Arab and African peoples alike. In this regard, we can note the revival of the Cairo-Cape Town project after freeing it from its colonial baggage. Moreover, the Arabian Peninsula and the coast of East Africa can be linked through the Bab el Mandeb Strait by means of a bridge between Djibouti and Yemen.

I believe that when the Arabs and the Africans met face to face in Kuwait for the third time, they realised the seriousness of the challenges in the geo-strategic scene in both the Arab and African worlds in light of the international raids against them in order to gain wealth and power. Based on this, the transition towards the future will be conditional on reaching an Afro-Arabian partnership which will make the 21st century the century of the Arabs and Africans.

The author is a lecture at Cairo University. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera net on 26 November, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.