Algeria, Sudan, Libya: Revolutions are hard — and unpredictable


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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Marcia Mayaba —Driven to open doors for women

Marcia Mayaba has been in the motor industry for 24 years, donning hats that include receptionist, driver, fuel attendant, dealer principal and now chief...

The war on women in video game culture

Women and girls make up almost half of the gaming community but are hardly represented and face abuse in the industry

More top stories

Mysteries behind Battle of Bangui

A new book offers unprecedented insight into South Africa’s strange relationship with the Central African Republic

Gatvol Capetonians, EFF lash out at City of Cape Town...

Public infrastructure was allegedly damaged by the activist group in 2019 and by the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2020

Masuku loses appeal against SIU report on Covid graft

The judge found that when news of improprieties were brought to his attention, Masuku did not take steps to urgently intervene

Leaking De Ruyter’s affidavit countering racism claims was ‘malicious’ and...

Mkhuleko Hlengwa has pointed to people in Eskom or the public enterprises department for making the document public

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…