It is not inconceivable that by the end of this month — perhaps even the end of week — three north African countries will have new leaders. It is yet another turbulent period in the region’s history, and, like 2011’s Arab Spring, the ramifications of what’s happening now will be felt for years to come, and not just within the confines of the countries at the centre of the tumult.
Algeria already has its new president, thanks to two months of relentless public pressure which forced a hasty rethink from the ruling elite. After two decades in office, the ailing 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika was pushed out by his generals, who worried that supporting his bid for a fifth term in office would precipitate the collapse of their entire house of cards. In his place comes 76-year-old Abdelkader Bensalah, the speaker of parliament’s upper house and a key ally of the former president. So close is their relationship that when the former president was too ill to perform his official duties, Bensalah would act on his behalf, so this is hardly a revolution; more a fractional evolution of the status quo.
At the same time, in Sudan, hundreds of thousands of people have been demanding the departure of their president, Omar al-Bashir, culminating this week in mass sit-ins in the centre of Khartoum. The bravery of the protestors is hard to comprehend: in his quarter of a century in charge, Bashir has rarely hesitated to murder civilians who get in his way, which is why he is wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
So far, in this round of protests, at least 21 people have died, but the demonstrations have only grown in size and in ambition. Now some elements of the military have turned against their president, and there is a very real possibility that Bashir’s days are numbered. There is also a very real possibility that Bashir will mobilise the paramilitary forces loyal to him — some of which are also implicated in atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere — and raise the death toll dramatically.
It is easy to be inspired by the courage on display by ordinary people in Algeria and Sudan. And that courage should be celebrated — if more of us were prepared to risk our lives for what we believed in, this world would probably be a better place.
Then again, nearby Libya, in the throes of yet another messy political transition of its own, is a cautionary tale — and a reminder that while revolutions always deliver change, it is rarely the kind of change that protesters envisage. The departure of Muammar Gaddafi, hastened by a misguided western bombing campaign, was supposed to usher in a new democratic era. Instead, the country is divided between competing power centres, and this week finds itself on the brink of another civil war thanks to warlord Khalifa Haftar’s surprise advance on the capital, Tripoli. Plans for a national reconciliation conference lie in tatters.
Instead of a bright new future, Libya’s Arab Spring ushered in a decade of conflict, not just for Libyans but also for neighbouring Mali, where a civil war was sparked by Tuareg mercenaries returning home after serving in Gaddafi’s army. Nor did the Arab Spring work out for Egypt, where the revolution ultimately resulted in the imposition of a military government that is even more oppressive than the one that was overthrown.
Zimbabweans too are all too aware that the act of removing a president-for-life is not the same as overhauling a political system. The celebrations that accompanied the resignation of Robert Mugabe are long forgotten, replaced in the headlines by the funerals and the trials of the activists and organisers that the government has purged. It turns out that replacing a dictator with his top lieutenant is not a path to freedom and prosperity.
This is a lesson that Algerians appear to have learnt. Protesters have reacted to the appointment of Bensalah with rage, vowing to continue with their demonstrations until ‘le pouvoir’ — the power — has been totally dismantled. Now that’s a revolution. Although, as with every other revolution, its consequences are impossible to predict.