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In Mali and Egypt, as music goes, so does democracy

After five years of coups and insurgencies, the two countries have followed different tunes

February 23, 2016 2:00AM ET

In the past five years, the West African nation of Mali has suffered through a military coup, an attempted countercoup and the eruption of a major insurgency in the northern part of the country. But the capital, Bamako, still pulses with the culture of music, from traditional kora and ngoni to slow Songhoy Blues jams and from Touareg rock to West African hip-hop. Two festivals ran concurrently there last month, the Festival Acoustik de Bamako and a Dogon heritage festival.

Meanwhile, Egypt is in the midst of the most invasive crackdown on citizens in its modern history, five years after the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of people have been killed, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned, tortured and disappeared. Police are breaking into people’s homes around Cairo’s Tahrir Square and searching their Facebook and email accounts, looking for anyone who might still espouse the goals of the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution. On once occupied streets, the music has gone silent. In the Sinai desert, an anti-government insurgency rages on, but the government has little incentive to end it, since it functions as a justification for suspending freedoms.

Why are these two countries in opposite circumstances five years after what should always have been understood as an Afro-Arab Spring? In theory, the situation should be the reverse. Egypt’s GDP per capita is triple Mali’s; its human development index rating, literacy rate and level of industrialization are almost double; and its life expectancy is 20 years longer. Egypt has a relatively educated population and a historically strong state that at least has the potential to govern and develop the country. For its part, Mali remains by almost every measure one of the poorest countries on earth.

The two countries both contain ungoverned desert regions, home to disaffected and marginalized populations who for centuries have been engaged in long-distance trade outside the bounds of state control. More recently, as the level of state neglect and broken promises became intolerable, foreign-influenced religious insurgencies have been able to infiltrate and take over some of these areas.

Mali is certainly not the economic African success story it was once described as, and its government and security forces are not free of corruption and abuse. Yet it is experiencing a renewed democracy and a cultural renaissance, both pitted against the religious extremism that nearly ripped the country in half. In Mali some of the most beautiful, complex and virtuosic music on earth is being weaponized in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

Minister of Culture N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo explained why her government is so interested in supporting music, saying, “Our way to be back onto the world stage is our music … our oil.” Music is at the heart of Mali’s attempt to secure international support; there are over 10,000 troops from 47 countries as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. The government wants to ensure the pacification of Islamic rebels, a continued peace process with potential separatists in the north, a reduced degree of alienation between the elite and the mass of citizens, a strengthening of civil society and a diminishing of regional cleavages.

An immoderate regime cannot support a moderate culture or religion.

Bamako is experiencing the kind of joy — or at least the sense of the possible — that was present in Cairo in the months after Mubarak’s ouster but has long since disappeared. But Mali’s artists are looking around and wondering where all their friends are. According to Habib Koité, one of Mali’s most celebrated artists, “No one’s coming here now,” because of their belief, wrongly, that the security situation remains dangerous. He is wistful and bewildered because of the absence of so many artists who used to flock to the country to work with its famed musicians.

Meanwhile, Egyptian artists aren’t wondering why no one is visiting their country. Most of them have been silenced, jailed or exiled. The country’s independent arts institutions have likewise been closed or censored. Wael Eskandar, one of Egypt’s most prominent dissident journalists, said, “Nothing good has been done culturally by the government even before the present crisis. It’s sad that Egypt could have done the same thing as Mali.”

Of course, Egypt’s government can’t copy Mali’s because it’s deathly afraid of its artists. It is simply unimaginable that the wife of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi would show up, as Malian first lady Keita Aminata Maiga did, at the opening night of the country’s first international festival since the insurgency, climb onto the stage, stand with the country’s most important artists and declare her full support for tolerance, openness and democracy. Nor can one imagine some of the world’s biggest pop stars coming out in support of their Egyptian peers the way Bono, Damon Albarn and others have supported their Malian comrades.

An immoderate regime cannot support a moderate culture or religion. The best Egypt can do is a shoddy cult of personality for a leader whose power is cemented by broken vertebrae, cigarette burns, revanchist nationalism and billions of dollars in U.S. weapons and aid. Mali’s government and artists, meanwhile, are joined in a war against intolerance and extremism because of a genuine commitment to political pluralism and tolerance that few countries in the Arab world, outside of Tunisia, can muster.

The struggles against corruption, inequality, intolerance and chauvinism “have to be one and the same,” as bass player Oumar Touré of the Malian world rock band Songhoy Blues said. Wearing a Jimi Hendrix shirt to perform at the Festival Acoustik de Bamako’s closing concert, Cheick Tidiane Seck perfectly summed up the mood. “Yes, it’s like Woodstock,” he said

Five years ago, the night Mubarak was ousted, Egyptian metal guitarist Shung shared the very same analogy, celebrating along with hundreds of thousands of others in Tahrir Square. Let’s hope that this time, Woodstock heralds a new era and not merely the beginning of a brief interlude of freedom.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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