Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world, not least from its leading statesmen. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, born in Algeria.
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“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed El-Baradei, a fellow Nobel peace prize winner.
Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of declaring three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.
Unlike in the West, however, Arab sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs would even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.
Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt in parallel a sense of African solidarity.
According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.
In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour, after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.
Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”
Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.
And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.
Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.
Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.
Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”
Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), against strong sub-Saharan African opposition. PAFMECA became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.
“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”
“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.
It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.
Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: Slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.
This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.
That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.
In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.
The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.
However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realize is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.
Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.
And despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe, and is now living in Jerusalem again. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea.