Concluding Reflections on Africa and the Middle East

Alex de Waal, Tufts University

If ‘Africa’ straddles the vast desert of the Sahara, the Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui once provocatively asked, why should it not also cross the narrow waterway that is the Red Sea? The cultural similarities between the two shores of the Red Sea are such, Mazrui contended, that we should also consider the Arabian Peninsula as part of Africa’s civilization.[1] The authors in this collection are, like Mazrui, predominantly Africanists, and are asking comparably intriguing and expansive questions. Rather than seeking to assimilate one region to another, the essays ask a set of questions that allow us to pose fruitful critique of the traditions of scholarship—and policy paradigms—across both regions.

These concluding reflections are grouped into two sections. First, I will examine areas in which Middle Eastern studies can benefit from African studies, and vice versa, and some of the policy implications that might follow a more productive dialogue. Next, I turn to themes that particularly gain from trans-regional comparative study, including identity issues, political Islam and resistance and revolution.

Cross-Pollinating African and Middle Eastern Studies

This collection, while organized by the Project on Middle East Political Science, consists predominantly of Africanist scholars reaching out across the Sahara and the Red Sea. It is striking that scholars of society and comparative politics in Africa, perhaps on account of their subaltern status within the metropolitan academy, have taken the lead in posing challenges to their colleagues working on the Middle East, rather than the other way around.  This, I presume, represents a first rather than a final step in an important scholarly dialogue.

Some of the prevailing paradigms for African political science which had earlier outings across the breadth of the Third World (including the Middle East) have been elaborated to their fullest extent in sub-Saharan Africa. A fine example is neo-patrimonialism, earlier applied to Iran under Mohamed Reza Shah,[2] and is now the default framework for African states. The ethnography of contesting forms of authority in armed conflict—‘warscape’—is similarly of value well beyond its principal case studies south of the Sahara.[3]

For Africanists, the reluctance of scholars of Iraq and (especially) Syria to draw on Africanist scholarship to help understand their wars has been puzzling and occasionally galling. Those studying conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen have been more open to Africanist insight.  Is this because of identifiable differences in the nature of Middle Eastern states and conflict dynamics, or is it something else?   Similarly, policymakers dealing with Middle Eastern conflicts would have greatly benefited from the hard-won wisdom of the African Union in conflict resolution, which compares favorably with the record of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. In the case of Libya in 2011, the African Union’s prescient warnings about the perils of forcible regime change were disregarded by Arab countries and NATO, with calamitous results.[4] Similarly, the African-led approach for dealing with militant jihadism in the 1990s, in which military and policing were subordinate to an overall political strategy, successfully removed the threat posed by al-Qaeda,[5] but those lessons were not learned in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

There are also frameworks and perspectives developed within Middle Eastern studies that can usefully be imported to African studies. For example, the literature on proxy wars, developed historically around Lebanon and more recently Syria and Libya, is highly relevant to sub-Saharan Africa, where studies of conflict have been handicapped by a preoccupation with internal conflicts with the consequence of underplaying the inter-state dimensions which are far more common than received wisdom permits.[6] Geo-political rivalry, a much-utilized lens for the study of the Middle East, is similarly neglected with regard to Africa. The attention paid by Middle East scholars to the growing interventionism of Middle Eastern states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates around the region can help inform Africanist scholars about their interests and growing role across Africa, as suggested here by Federico Donelli, Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, Ezgi Guner and Wolfram Lacher. Perhaps most neglected of all is the role of Israel in Africa, a gap remedied in part by Yotam Gidron’s recent book.[7] Gulf States have been paying keen attention to the imminent energy transition (from oil and gas to renewable energy), albeit using the language of ‘diversification’ in preference to either ‘climate change adjustment’ or ‘energy transition.’[8] The prospects of rapid and traumatic decarbonization and collapse of oil revenues has, by contrast, scarcely begun to enter the thinking of African oil producers such as Angola, Chad, Nigeria or South Sudan.

Identity Issues across the Regions

Across Africa and the Middle East, discourses and contests around identity are fast-changing. Among the most fascinating changes are where ‘African’ and ‘Arab’ identities are in flux and contestation. The different shades of colonialism across the Sahara, up the Nile Valley and across the Red Sea[9] foreshadow different shades of post-colonial cultural critique. Just as the ‘black Atlantic’ perspective—subaltern and postcolonial[10]—has refashioned our understanding of the flow of social and cultural forms, we anticipate writings on the ‘black Sahara,’ and ‘black Nile’—perhaps even the ‘black Red Sea’.

Morocco, for example, has recently shifted towards affirming the African dimensions of its national identity, both internally (recognizing the Berber language) and internationally (rejoining the African Union and playing an active role in West Africa). As Hisham Aidi explores in this volume, Morocco’s shift towards emphasizing its African character has arisen in part through a subaltern challenge to the Arab nationalist character of the state by indigenous (Amazigh) and African identity movements that gained profile and momentum after the ‘Arab Spring’, and also by an adept re-positioning of the state in response to changing geo-strategic realities. The government of King Mohamed VI has tried to use both its Sufi traditions and its part-Amazigh identity as soft power elements in building a sphere of influence in lands that were once part of the greater Moroccan empire, and even beyond. This embrace has been cautiously welcomed by its immediate beneficiaries, who are nonetheless conscious of the political motives driving the change. The re-invocation of legacies of empire also compels Moroccans to deal with histories of slavery and contemporary racism in a discomfiting manner that was probably unanticipated by the authorities when they pivoted towards Africa.

Morocco provides illuminating cases of what happens when there is an official opening up of ‘African’ discourse in a hitherto ‘Arab’ nation. Libya, as Wolfram Lacher demonstrates in this collection, shows the reverse—a violently contested political landscape in which the contenders agreed only in their rejection of the ‘African’ embrace of the former leader Muammar Gaddafi, which shaped a post-Gaddafi Libya unwelcoming to sub-Saharan Africans. Tunisia, as Afifa Ltifi shows, has a different pattern again, in which black identities have been sufficiently marginal to be unproblematic within the dominant discourse but have enduring effects on citizens with African origins. These shifts all bring into greater focus the place in Northern Africa of peoples of the Central Sahara, such as Toubou and Tuareg.

When South Sudan achieved its independence in 2011, it is notable that the country chose to retain ‘Sudan’ in its name. This was less an internalization of the label used by an oppressor and more that it was laying claim to an historical heritage. As Noah Salomon suggests in this collection, the term ‘Sudanese’ has historically migrated northwards: originally used for detribalized southern Sudanese and Nuba people in northern Sudan, it gradually took on a pan-Sudanese referent before becoming attached in the post-colonial era to the governing elite.[11] Therefore, South Sudanese can claim to be the ‘original’ Sudanese, and sometimes do. Although the new republic decided to adopt English and indigenous languages as its national languages—pointedly  excluding Arabic—South  Sudanese Arabic is in reality the lingua franca of the country, the preferred medium for the president to use when he wants to reach the largest possible national audience.

It is no accident that Sudan leads the introduction to this volume, or that the collection includes more essays about it than any other single country. Sudan is a microcosm and a meeting point of scholarly traditions from Africa and the Middle East, and the comparative political ethnography of Sudan provides exemplars of everything and its opposite. The leaders of the civil uprising of 2019 explicitly called on ‘African’ images and narratives, including most famously the figure of the Nubian queen Kandaka. Non-Arab Sudanese in the peripheries (for example Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile) are ambivalent about this, as for them the Nubians and members of the Shaigiya and Ja’aliyiin Arab groups of northern Sudan are grouped in the same category as the elite that has dominated the Sudanese state since independence, marginalizing the others. The paramilitary leader, General Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Hamdan Dagolo, has ably played on this ambivalence: as a Darfurian Arab he has portrayed himself as a champion of the marginalized provinces for whom ‘African’ or ‘Arab’ identity is secondary to position in a status hierarchy based on place of origin. In doing this, Hemedti is also seeking to subvert the discourse of ‘African’ autochtones versus ‘Arab’ incomers that has dominated the narrative of the Darfur war. The narrative of indigeneity was initially used in the 1990s by discontented Darfurians in a contextual and hesitant manner, aware that the Darfurian Arabs were also victims of marginalization. The simplified dichotomy was, however, adopted and amplified by the international Save Darfur coalition as a key element in its framing of the Darfur war as genocide perpetrated by ‘Arabs’ against ‘Africans’,[12] and then further utilized by Darfurian leaders to mobilize their constituents.

There are other connections which could be drawn. Because of Eritrea’s recent isolation from the rest of the scholarly world, its linkages up, down and across the Red Sea have not been sufficiently explored. By comparison, the history of Yemenis in Africa—associated with trade rather than empire—is well-documented, though it also calls out for broader comparative study. At far eastern littoral of the Arab region, Oman has a history of engagement in East Africa. The Zanzibari revolution of 1964 curtailed Omani links to the Swahili coast in an abrupt and bloody manner, leading to a protracted mutual estrangement. A substantial minority of Omanis can trace their ancestry to East Africa.[13] Moreover, Oman’s history is seen in a new light in a context where its Gulf neighbors (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) as well as Turkey are becoming assertive players across the Red Sea, often acting in a manner that is seen at minimum self-interested and insensitive and at worst downright bullying and exploitative.

Political Islam

Political Islam is also illuminated by the trans-regional analysis. Alex Thurston, in this volume, effectively interrogates the puzzling absence of the Muslim Brothers as a social and political force in sub-Saharan Africa. Part of the answer appears to be the enduring vibrancy of diverse forms of Islam in Sudan and the Sahel, including Sufi and Salafi sects, with the implication that the Muslim Brothers had to position themselves not only with respect to a secular state, but also to other Islamisms. In this context, it also makes sense to invert the question and to ask, why did the particular political, ideological and organizational form of the Muslim Brothers emerge, first in Egypt, and then in other Middle Eastern countries? And should we not see the resonance and resilience of this particular configuration as the puzzle to be explained, rather than its absence elsewhere?  Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, from another direction, shows how Mauritania’s approach to violent Islamist challenges has differed in intriguing ways from those of its “Middle Eastern” neighbors.

Resistance and Revolution

The study of civic resistance and non-violent revolution in Africa was a neglected backwater, until the ‘Arab Spring’ posed the question of whether such uprisings had taken place south of the Sahara.  As Nisrin El-Amin elegantly demonstrates here, the answer to this question was that they indeed had—famously in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 and in numerous other forms during independence struggles and democracy movements.[14] This tradition has remained alive in both regions, and the 2019 uprisings in Algeria, Iraq and Sudan have shown a remarkable capacity for learning from past shortcomings and disappointments. Particularly significant has been the leading role played by women in the Sudanese revolution, which was, among other things, a powerful signal of a commitment to non-violence. And in turn, a comparative history of democratic efforts across Africa and the Middle East illuminates both the persistence of revolutionary demands and the endless creativity of democratic activists.





[1] Ali Mazrui, The Africans: A triple heritage. Boston, Little, Brown & Co. 1986, pp. 28-9.

[2] Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, Traditional patrimonialism and modern neopatrimonialism. Vol. 1. Sage, 1973; Daniel C. Bach, Patrimonialism and neopatrimonialism: comparative trajectories and readings, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 49:3, 2011, 275-294.

[3] Benedikt Korf, Michelle Engeler & Tobias Hagmann ‘The Geography of Warscape,’ Third World Quarterly, 31:3, 2010, 385-399.

[4] Alex de Waal, “‘My Fears, Alas, Were Not Unfounded,’: Africa’s responses to the Libya conflict,” in Aidan Hehir and Robert Murray (eds.) Libya: The Responsibility to Protect and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[5] Alex de Waal, ‘The Politics of Destabilization in the Horn, 1989-2001,’ in Alex de Waal (ed.) Islamism and its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, London, Hurst, 2004.

[6] Noel Twagiramungu, Allard Duursma, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe and Alex de Waal,‘ Re-describing Transnational Conflict in Africa,’ Journal of Modern African Studies, 57.3, 2019, 377-391.

[7] Yotam Gidron, Israel in Africa: Security, migration, interstate politics. London, International African Institute with Zed Books, 2020.

[8] Global Commission on the Politics of Energy Transformation, A New World: The geopolitics of the energy transformation, Abu Dhabi, IRENA, 2019.

[9] Eve Troutt-Powell. A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain and the Mastery of Sudan, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003.

[10] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1993; Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, Transl. Laurent Dubois, Durham NC, Duke University Press, 2017.

[11] Elena Vezzadini, Lost Nationalism: Revolution, memory and anti-colonial resistance in Sudan, Woodbridge, James Currey, 2015.

[12] Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, politics, and the war on terror. NY, Doubleday, 2009.

[13] Marc Valeri, ‘Nation-building and communities in Oman since 1970: The Swahili-speaking Omani in search of identity,’ African Affairs, 106/424, 2007, 479–496.

[14] Zoe Marks, Erica Chenoweth and Jide Okeke, ‘People Power is Rising in Africa,’ Foreign Affairs, April 25, 2019; Dorcas Ettang, ‘Factors for Successful Nonviolent Action in Africa,’ Peace Review, 26:3, 2014, 412-419.