Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Could Congo be Egypt?

About three weeks ago, the various Congolese listservs I am subscribed to stopped talking about the Congo and started transmitting messages about Tunisia and Egypt full with "Congo is next!" and "Make the Gare Central into Tahrir!"

So it is possible? I doubt it. First of all, the Congo is still a multiparty democracy coming up on its second national elections. But there are other reasons, as well:

The Egyptian uprising was carried out by several groups. (1) A networked and discontent middle-class of Facebook-savvy urbanites who rallied through social groups such as "April 6th movement" and "We Are All Khalid Said;" (2) a mobilized labor sector that, especially later in the uprising, was able to bring part of Egypt's economy to a standstill through strikes; and (3) a well-organized Muslim Brotherhood that bridges professional and workers' classes and was able, especially later in the demonstrations, to organize and rally more people against the regime.

In addition, the fervor of the Tunisian uprising served as a direct inspiration to the Egyptians, who saw themselves in a similar situation. Media from around the world, but especially Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, broadcast images to millions of Egyptian households throughout the demonstrations, spreading the word and further mobilizing the population. At the same time, foreign media flocked to Egypt, aware of the country's importance in the region due to its economy and its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This made it difficult for Mubarak to crush the uprising with brute force.

In the Congo, there are factors that could, on the face of things, foment unrest. The absolute misery of the people is much worse than in Egypt in terms of health, nutrition and general welfare. Kinshasa is the third largest city in Africa behind Cairo and Lagos and has plenty of disaffected youth. In 1992, the "Marche des Chrétiens" brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Kinshasa against Mobutu, and the recent return of Tshisekedi may have sent similar numbers onto the streets.

But the political networks are not sufficiently strong or deep to sustain large protests for very long in face of a government that would likely use force before abdicating. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 21% of Egpyt's population has access to the internet and 5% are on Facebook; in the Congo, the corresponding figures are 0.5% and 0.1%.

In Egypt, GDP per capita is around $2,200 and the inequality (Gini) index is 32 (the higher, the more unequal the income distribution) and around 15% of the population finish university. In the Congo, GDP per capita is $171, its Gini index is 44 and around 3% have university schooling. While this is not enough of an indicator of middle-class strength, numerous other factors suggest that there is much more of an educated, semi-affluent middle class in Cairo than in Kinshasa or elsewhere in the country. This is a factor not just for creating strong, politicized networks, but also for maintaining people in streets - in the Congo, a key problem for demonstrations is that people eat from hand to mouth, surviving on what they can make each day.

You don't need to be educated to belong to a strong social group. But most political parties in the Congo have relatively meager loyal followings, and the unions that exist and strike regularly (doctors, teachers) do not threaten to bring the economy to a standstill.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Tshisekedi's UDPS has certainly shown that they can mobilize people, and the Catholic church can be a huge force if it overcomes some internal divisions. But, on several occasions - in 2005/6 during the UDPS boycott of the electoral process, and in 1997 when the AFDL arrived in Kinshasa - the UDPS has also shown that it has a hard time sustaining large, peaceful demonstrations in the face of possible violence. When I lived in Bukavu under RCD rule, we used to march by thousands in the streets against the RCD, supported by the Catholic church and civil society. But the local officials obviously didn't care at the time, nobody was watching on TV or Facebook, and we were faced with hundreds of soldiers with AK-47 who were not shy at using them.

And that brings us to the last, important point. My guess is that protesters would have to face a greater risk of violence than Egyptians. Not that the hundreds of Egyptians who died do not testify to the bravery of the protesters there. But in the Congo, the army and police are probably less well trained, more poorly equipped and less wedded to serving civilians than their Egyptian counterparts. And if the army opens fire and kills hundreds of civilians, donors and international press would be less likely to raise a stink. After all, something similar happened in Bas-Congo in 2007, and donor protest soon abated.

Of course, nothing is impossible. If Egypt and Tunisia taught us something, it is that when revolutions arise, they do so suddenly and unexpectedly.


bathroom designs for small bathrooms said...

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Jason Stearns said...

ah, if only bathroom designs for small bathrooms would really care about the congo...

Anonymous said...

Sharp piece, Jason.

But why must the model be Egypt or Tunisia?

What about Gdansk and Solidarity? (75% of whose organizers had less than a third grade education and, on many measures, were poorer than their Zairian counterparts at the time, and whose measure of state control over information was absolute)

What about the Liberians Women's Peace movement?

Were the people in Montgomery in 1955 all led by propertied, educated organizers? (it was, after all, a seamstress that inspired them)

At a certain point, I believe quite soon, the Congolese will confront their fear of death and take on the instruments of power.

It has happened throughout history and on the African continent itself- with Egypt being the latest but certainly not the last of people's to recognize who truly holds the power.

It would be great if it was peaceful like Solidarity or the civil rights movement. But sooner or later it will happen.

And, as you may know, their is an effort stateside to work with the Catholic Church to train up organizers to organize the people along the lines of movement strategies and tactics of old.

You and I have both seen enough death and pain and evil in the Congo that it is easy to forget that the best of humanity is possible in the Congo.

It is easy but I will never allow myself to forget and we must not only have hope but start doing real work to light the spark.

People always find a way, Jason. And there is a way in the Congo.


Anonymous said...

Good post, Jason.

So, this begs two questions. Given you said this:

But the political networks are not sufficiently strong or deep to sustain large protests for very long in face of a government that would likely use force before abdicating.

1. What do you believe COULD remove the fear of violence that would allow the Congolese to stare down this government AND engender good will abroad?

2. Do you even believe this is even necessary given the Congolese, unlike the Egyptians, can actually change their government? (sure, we are about to head into likely another fraud-plagued election but, in theory, they can do this).

Thank you,

Anonymous said...

Jason -- great piece of comparative analysis. I would add one point of difference between the two situations. Unlike Egypt - and most of the Arab North African countries -- Congo has been engaged in a transformation/democratization process for the last two decades. It's been extremely frustrating and marred with setbacks, but it's there. This removes from the Congo situation an element of hopelessness which was one of the major ingredients in the Egyptian/Tunisian case.

Anonymous said...

"... when revolutions arise, they do so suddenly and unexpectedly."

That is the most important statement of the piece. Despite the similarities between Egypt and Tunisia, no "expert" was out betting that Mubarak was going to fall next. It's not easy to predict what it may take for an oppressed people to reach the breaking point and risk everything to reclaim its freedom and human dignity.

Congo need not have the Tunisian and Egyptian defining ingredients to have a revolution of its own.

Anonymous said...

Sorry mate. the whole of Africa has got the life line in their hands now to act and change the course of history. Egypt and Tunisia have done it. The door is open for Africa See more at

Bronwen said...

To follow up on the point made by Anonymous, I would speculatively emphasise three main points of difference between DRC and Egypt: (1) there is a sort of transformation process under way, so people have the sense that the official channels are not exhausted yet ; (2) the repression in DRC is not as absolute because the government just has less control over everything, so there's both less need to revolt and less belief that a revolt might change anything ; (c) a related point, that the weakness of the state means that the opposition is also somehow fragmented into many different resistances rather than one united one.

Anonymous said...

i would definitely say that the "passive" behavior of the military in egypt helped a lot. In the DRC I figure the soldiers/police would be far less tolerant towards that, especially in Kinshasa. And most protests die down after a bloodbath took place ( the ordinary citizens are no fighters ) and the lack of donor/foreign interest will do the rest to take the wind out of the protesters sails.

Jason Stearns said...

These are all very good points. A few comments.

In general, there is no one recipe for revolution or change driven by popular protest. But usually it requires (a) cracks in the ruling regime, (b) networks that can support sustained mobilization, and (c) determination and grit driven by ideology or pervasive grievances. Lastly, there is a lot of contingency as protests spread and are challenged by security forces.

@ Melissa - I agree, but I think whether it's the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Solidarnosc, you need to have strong organizational capacity. That seems to be lacking in the case of the Congo.

@Bryce/Anonymous #1: The fact that the Congo is a democracy with regular elections changes things enormously, you are right. Among other things, it shows the population that the parliamentary opposition is flawed itself, so even if elections are flawed people may be more cynical about the not-so-green grass on the other side.

Rich said...

- Jason,

Great piece inside out. Feel priveledged I can interact on this forum.

I agree with your piece on more than one level. However, it has to be noted that other variables can be added to the reflexion and generate differentials of significant meanings between the probability of seeing a revolution in DRC as this was the case in Tunisia & Egypt.

I can refer to two variables: the ethno-linguistic divide and the military situation.

The ethno-linguistic divide as threaded through the DRC’s political history is one complex variable that can exacerbate, complicate or annihilate any such revolution.

I’m not expert on the Egypt or Tunisia’s ethno-linguistic divides but I am suspicious that if such divide exists in those countries, it is not as pronounced as it is in DRC’s political makeup.

Concerning the military variable, looking at the Egyptian revolution alone, despite it being a genuine grass root movement that cross-cuts the whole Egyptian social spectrum, the end result is kind of resembling, more and more, yet another silent army coup sponsored by the US in order to protect its interests in the region (only time (6 months) can tell if the military will give power back to the people).

The military situation in the three countries is self explanatory. In Egypt you have a professional army despite it being very dependent on the US’ gracious pocket money (around 1.3 Billion/year in terms of military aid). Yet the DRC has no professional army apart from armed guards of the regime and armed gangs organised under military systems and acting like mercenaries in their supposed own countries. Which make them more likely to use more than brutal force on peaceful demonstrators.

More can be said about how the Tunisia/Egypt’s scheme cannot apply to the DRC. Does this mean the DRC is somehow immune to, or do not need a, revolution?

No doubt, the DRC needs a Revolution and the sooner the better. However, one needs to ask him/her self, what kind of Revolution is needed in a country where the need for every single basic right is a legitimate and severe emergency?

I don’t think there is a simple answer to such a question. This is why I finish by agreeing with your final comment, “Of course, nothing is impossible. If Egypt and Tunisia taught us something, it is that when revolutions arise, they do so suddenly and unexpectedly.”

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this analysis. Your points are correct - communication, education, middle-class : none of them are anywhere close to the Egyptian levels. But as Melissa points out evoking Solidarity, none of these were necessary conditions for revolutions elsewhere.

And Solidarity seems what is lacking for a Tunisia or Egypt in Congo - at least from what I can tell from Katanga. After the constitutional revision, it took four leading Katangan NGOs a week to start drafting a reaction. A good draft though, to the point, focused on the one-round election.

But when the official version gets out, with its typical list of 20 acronyms making it a legitimate provincial press release, the draft has changed completely. A uninspired analysis in which the one-round election is degraded to a bullet at the bottom of a laundry list of weak legalistic comments. More worryingly, the text states that "cette révision telle qu'opérée ne concerne pas les principes fondamentaux du fonctionnement des institutions du pays. De ce point de vue, la révision constitutionnelle est légale et régulière." Then why write a press release? Have the 16 non-leaders watered down the text? Hapana, an individual of the core decided to send out his own text in name of the group. So much for Solidarity. So much for Egypt in Lubumbashi.

Now Katanga is a biased province of course, where many have vested interests. But I've witnessed similar capitulations in Kinshasa. And if one man with rare unifying skills like Tshisekedi wants to make a real change, he will have to face this factor, starting with his own campaign and ability to get to an open consensus with other candidates.


Anonymous said...

Incredibly fascinating thread. Thanks for starting it, Jason.

It is certainly, but not absolutely, true that revolutionary change needs a committed, ideological cohesive, group of leaders who take responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.

A cadre of these leaders generally hail from the bourgeois but this is not essential and the 20th and now 21st centuries this has mostly not been the case- be it violent or nonviolent revolutionary change.

That said, one important piece that is missing here is some spark, or some social or economic choicepoint, whereby the whole of a society can shirk off their inertia, apathy, fear, and take action against what is perceived as an oppressive system so as to eventually subvert it.

In India, it was salt. In Montgomery, it was Rosa’s arrest. In Ireland it was Bloody Sunday. In Poland, it was the murder of Priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, and in Tunisia, that young man who set himself ablaze. And ofcourse in Egypt it was, well, Tunisia.

While activity certainly occurred well before these incidents, the organizers of the movements that followed needed to find something in their social contexts that the entire society- regardless of its divisions- could rally around and from which clear demands could be articulated so as to confront state power. Additionally, the leaders all recognized that value of using whatever medium of communication was available to raise the consciousness of not only their fellow citizens inside and outside the movement but the world at large.

Sure, many of these movements were led by leaders who recognized the geo-political positioning going on in the world at the time and rightly figured their movements would find a willing audience in various world capitals.

But again, there needs to be some choice point, some spark, for leaders to build their movements and, as a happy by product, “ organizational capacity” to challenge a regime.

Spark + Leaders + Organization= Movement

So the question in my view is what is that in the Congo? What is their salt? Their bus system? Their broadly felt grievance against state power or ineptitude that can sufficiently move them to organize, unify, raise up leaders, and challenge Kabila’s regime?

I don’t know about you good folks but some of the the most inspiring people I met in the Congo were women in small provincial towns who were despondent at the choice of paying for food over paying the dreaded school fee. Many of them were leaders in their community in various ways.

And all of them were reaching the breaking point.

Imagine what would happen if we sent a camera crew to follow these women into schools as they demanded they educate their children for free and staged a sit in as school officials refused to educate her child and posted them all over the internet?

I have a feeling she and anyone who would join her in such an effort would find quite a bit of support throughout the world (let us not forget the most powerful man in the world, Mssr Obama, began his life organizing communities to, among other things, fight for better schools) , undermine this regime, and unify Congo’s opposition in the process.

Just a thought.....


ps- the school fee boycott, to be clear, is not this Westerners idea. It is something activists I know in the Congo have been tossing around.

Anonymous said...

Jason - I feel compelled to make a quick comment through which I wish you will recognise who I am (and not say it on the blog). I am not going into deep comparative details between revolutionary drivers in Egypt and Tunisia: I don't believe there is such a thing as benchmarks or good lessons for factors of change: every situation being (and ought) to be different and authentic. If we were to close the book of "brilliant revolutions” after the French revolution of 1789, we would have certainly not witnessed the “fall of the Berlin Wall” in 1989.
Far from saying you are a Congo-sceptic, I truly believe you are rather frustrated that Congo and its people are missing just about every opportunity to make change happen.
In the hall of JFK in January 2006, just before the 2006 General elections, you gave me that fatalist "there is no one to challenge the incumbent president"; equally frustrated by the turn of the not very optimist developments in my beloved country, I told you: "There will be a leader"...guess what, the elections in 2006 just demonstrated that it is not over until it is over! You still want to bet about what will happen in the lead-up to the elections in 2011? Talk soon.

Anonymous said...

I like it!Thanks J

Anonymous said...

Some book about revolutions.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the work of Gene Sharp.

Sharp is considered an authority on non-violent revolution- particularly for those living in authoritarian regimes.

Some articles on Sharp recently (you can use google translate to translate these into French, Lingala, or Swahilli)


2. Politico (influential american political blog)

3. Newsmax (right wing take on the “Jewish” Sharp)

4. New York Times article (most influential paper in America)

I studied with him for a year in 2006-2007. Brilliant and peaceful guy.


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