The Libya and Bahrain protests are so distressing it’s hard to read other news, but I need to sort through my electronic piles of stories on Sudan. However, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa (as well as one of my friends’ new PhD proposal) is making me think about the attractiveness of tipping points in history.
There’s a really attractive oversimplifying element in discrete political events, as shown with the coverage of Sudan (in its North-South, Arab-black, Muslim-Christian tautology), Tunisia and Egypt, and now particularly Bahrain, with its Shia-Sunni divide. It’s also fun to compare. As well as comparisons and calls for ‘copy-cat’ referendums in Armenia and Azerbaijan, Balochistan (pinpoint that on a map, my friends), Kurdistan, Georgia and even Quebec, there are also more historical comparisons.
Douglas Johnson, at the Royal Africa Society’s seminar on the referendum on 4 February, used Somaliland’s UDI as a ‘lesson’ to the South about the importance of international recognition and the referendum route. In comparison, Heather Sharkey, in talking about how some have seen South Sudan’s independence as a late-comer to the 1950s and 60s independence parties, looks at the turning point of Congolese independence and the CIA assassination of Lumumba in 1961 as an example of what can go wrong almost immediately following self-determination, particularly with international collusion and pressure. Eritrea and Katanga have come up as comparisons in other seminars.
Turning points allow for teleological absolutism: Sharkey points out the tendency of news reports on the South to see secession as inevitable, even geographically obvious. But seeing political events as discrete moments also lends itself to counterfactual history, as Sharkey says historians will focus on whether the referendum, and secession, was avoidable.
It’s too easy to see political events, particularly elections, as self-contained units – the announcement, the campaigning, the voting, the result. Maybe this is why there’s been so much focus on the individual deaths that were ‘sparks’ for the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, and why so many political (and not so informed) commentators have been left saying how sudden and unexpected these events were, or being reductionist as to the causes. It’s far too difficult to explain the history of Libya, say, and the causes and outcomes – political and psychological – of previous attempts at political unrest and change; it’s also very hard to express in a news-worthy fashion the real emotional frustrations that lead people to take on intelligence services, police and armies in this way.