Is Egypt Possible in Zimbabwe?: Guest Post by Fr Michael Bennett

image The seemingly successful and relatively peaceful people’s revolution in Egypt has prompted commentators to ask if these events could spark similar movements elsewhere.

That’s a question that has been articulated in what remains of Zimbabwe’s independent media, as illustrated in a column by political science professor and human rights campaigner John Makumbe, which appeared online yesterday in the Zimbabwean.

Writing under the headline, ‘Is Egypt Possible in Zimbabwe?’, Makumbe says:

My personal view on this matter is that what the world has been watching on most international TV channels for the past three weeks is quite possible in Zimbabwe. We must not forget that in 1998 Zimbabwe experienced some serious riots in most urban centres, resulting in the Zanu (PF) capitulating on certain policies proposals. Recent outbursts of unprovoked violence perpetrated against innocent Zimbabweans are very likely to eventually result in the people of this country mobilizing themselves to become the change they would like to see.

Fr Michael Bennett, a priest with St Patrick’s Missionary Society in Kiltegan, ministered for more than a decade in Zimbabwe and is currently posted in South Africa, where he works alongside Zimbabwean refugees.

Fr Bennett has previously contributed guest posts on this blog. Below, he compares and contrasts the situations in Egypt and Zimbabwe. Like Makumbe, he argues that:

The Days of Despots are Numbered

I have been watching with great interest developments in Egypt. Quite extraordinary. Mass protests over 18 days, a people’s revolution. And they have succeeded. A state president, viewed by the US as an ally and by the masses on the street as a dictator who was thirty years in power, has resigned.

President Mubarak was appointed as vice-president by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and on  Sadat’s assasination in 1981, succeeded him as president. He was never elected by the people.  The ordinary citizens never stopped hungering for genuine democracy. In recent weeks they have succeeded in overcoming the fear that had crippled them for thirty years.  There is still a long way to go but they have set out their agenda and will not settle for pseudo-democracy. The Egyptian masses have brought about profound change in the Arab world and have affected the world order. The days of despots are numbered.

As I watched I thought continually about Zimbabwe. There are similarities and differences.

  • Parallels at the top level of political leadership are obvious. The former Egyptian president, as well as those in his immediate circle, were all old men, in their eighties – as is largely the case in Zimbabwe.
  • Control of the secret police by the status quo in Egypt was also obvious, as is the case in Zimbabwe. In Egypt 300 demonstrators were killed in recent days. In Zimbabwe militia groups loyal to the status quo have shown that they are capable of creating mayhem and violence, the only tactics they seem to know.
  • Control of the media by the status quo in Egypt paralleled the situation in Zimbabwe. Large banners in Tahrir Square read:Yes to Al Jazeera, No to state media’. How much news of Egypt was allowed to feature on Zimbabwe TV and radio? What slant was given to the unfolding events?

The role of the army in Egypt was crucial. It took the generals some time to accede to the demands of the peaceful revolutionary protesters, but eventually they read the signs of the times and complied. Presidential powers have now been handed over to a military council who are to usher in elections. The role of the youth who started off the protests was also significant. The role of the army and police in Zimbabwe seems different to Egypt. The military and police in Zimbabwe seem largely to be compromised and in support of the status quo.

Egypt, an Arab country, with a population of 80 million people, contrasts with Zimbabwe’s 10 or 11 million from a different cultural context. There is a fairly vibrant civil society in Zimbabwe which desires to occupy more and more public space – even if they are being continually blocked.

The status quo in Zimbabwe pays lip service to reconciling with past history and past issues, even the most recent past. People in Zimbabwe do not wish to undertake a witch-hunt but they do want some process of restorative justice. Talk of further elections in 2011 is dishonest when the violence of 2008, and previous violence, has not been nationally addressed.

There is no constitutional basis and no independent electoral commission, two vital ingredients for democratic elections and genuine democratic change. Further elections seem to be just a recipe for more of the same.

Is mass protest in Zimbabwe possible, as in Egypt?

A very appropriate time for mass protest in Zimbabwe was 2005, during and after ‘murambatsvina’. (Operation Murambatsvina was the systematic demolition of the homes of people in areas that had voted for the Movement for Democratic Change.) It never happened. Efforts in the early part of the last decade to get people to publicly protest over the economy largely failed. What strategy now remains?

One aspect of events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, was the use of social media (face-book, twitter) to get messages across. What are the possibilities for an increasing use of the internet in Zimbabwe where media controls of radio and TV remain tight?

For example, should human rights groups not be collating information (names, family members, roles) of those who have been involved in human rights abuses, or policies that have violated the lives of so many people (e.g. Murambatsvina, etc.)? Should this information not be available on the internet? It might temper further abusive intentions.

Dictators are falling in the Arab world. The time is short for the few that remain in the rest of the world. Human rights activists are advancing the day of their fall, and the fall of dictatorial regimes. It is extremely important to be vigilant as to who and what will replace them. Changing the rulers but not changing the rules is futile.

Take heart. Change is not some future event. The process of change is ongoing. It begins anew each day. Tiny seeds are planted daily which will bear fruit. These seeds create knowledge, build hope, cement courage and remove fear. When Zimbabaweans find the courage to overcome the fears that have crippled them for many years, radical change will ensue.

3 thoughts on “Is Egypt Possible in Zimbabwe?: Guest Post by Fr Michael Bennett”

  1. You still don’t answer why protests have failed in Zimbabwe in the past. Could it be because the people simply aren’t interested and outsiders, working with a few political elites in Zimbabwe, are the only ones who desire this?
    Secondly, one fundamental issue you are over-looking is that the people in Egypt are protesting against an American puppet. The pattern is generally the same across the Arab world where such protests have been noted. Who is the American puppet in Zimbabwe?
    Thirdly, who has taken over in Egypt? The military! Wouldn’t it just be great if Zimbabwe followed a similar path?

  2. Please note, there have been some slight revisions to Fr Michael Bennett’s post. The second paragraph has been changed slightly, and the final paragraph now reads:

    Take heart. Change is not some future event. The process of change is ongoing. It begins anew each day. Tiny seeds are planted daily which will bear fruit. These seeds create knowledge, build hope, cement courage and remove fear. When Zimbabaweans find the courage to overcome the fears that have crippled them for many years, radical change will ensue.

  3. Gono, one reason why protests may have failed in the past is that they have been put down violently by the police, such as protests by Women of Zimbabwe Arise. There seems to be little room for peaceful protest in Zimbabwe.

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