When things change but remain the same
by Salim Mansur
ALGIERS - To be in North Africa, especially Algeria on its 50th anniversary of independence from France, is to have an opportunity to see how Frantz Fanon's "wretched of the earth" have done on their own.
For those who may not know Fanon, he hailed from the French-administered island of Martinique in the Caribbean. He was born in 1925, trained in France as a psychiatrist, and joined the FLN (National Liberation Front) while working in Algeria when the anti-colonial struggle broke out there in 1954.
Though Fanon was a black man, he came to be revered for his contribution to Algeria's war of independence. He died in 1961 and is buried outside of Algiers.
Fanon is remembered widely for his book Les damnes de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), which turned out to be one of the most widely read texts of post-colonial writings.
Jean-Paul Sartre, France's leading Marxist thinker, wrote the preface for Fanon's book. And Fanon, following an early death, became an icon of third world Marxism and an apologist for revolutionary politics of violence by the colonized against colonizers and imperialists.
As I sit in a cafe along the waterfront in Algiers at the end of a month-long visit to North Africa, I wonder if Fanon were alive would he have any regrets about the revolution for which he eventually gave his life.
Most likely he would not, since "Fanonism," like Marxism in general, turned out to be a politics of collective resentment, grievance and tearing down what others had put in place as in French-Algeria. Once European colonialism ended, post-colonial elites schooled in Fanonism or Marxism robbed their people and wrecked their countries. Algeria is an example of a failed state, as is Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
A half-century and more since colonialism ended in North Africa, the so-called Arab Spring has been a movement once again fuelled by collective resentment and frustration against the inept rule of corrupt despots. It has been the people's verdict against their own post-colonial elites.
The question, however, remains: Has this generation of North Africans and Arabs learned sufficiently to renounce their politics of anger and violence, and move forward in history by embracing freedom and democracy?
It might be too early to answer in the affirmative given the evidence of Islamist politics with the Muslim Brotherhood in ascendance across the region. The Arab variant of Fanonism or Marxism turned out to be the totalitarian ideology of Nasserism in Egypt, and Baathism in Iraq and Syria. It lauded the principles of Arab nationalism, socialism — in effect the dominance of one party controlled state — and unity, which ruled out opposing or dissident opinion as treason.
Islamism — the joining of electoral politics as democracy with the objective of imposing Shariah-based rule with which the MB is identified — is merely another face of totalitarian politics in the Arab-Muslim world.
Hence, the irony is unmistakable. The so-called Arab Spring has brought North Africans and Arabs to discard one form of failed totalitarian politics with a half-century of self-inflicted misery and wars only to embrace another form of much the same.
If this means progress, Fanon's "wretched of the earth" could do better by wishing for return of the colonizers.