It’s too early to celebrate
It is not inconceivable that by the end of this month — perhaps even the end of this 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 is 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 that forced a hasty rethink by the ruling elite. After two decades in office, the ailing 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 house of cards.
So close is their relationship that when the former president was too ill to perform his official duties, Bensalah would act on his behalf.
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.
On Thursday, government sources broke the extraordinary news that the protests had worked, and that Bashir was stepping down.
The bravery of the protesters is hard to comprehend. In his 30 years 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. Twenty-one people were killed during the demonstrations, but that did not dent their size or ambition.
It is easy to be inspired by the courage on display by the citizens of 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 — a reminder that while revolutions always deliver change, it may not be 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 era of democracy. Instead, the country is divided between competing power centres.
The civil war escalated this week, when warlord Khalifa Haftar advanced on the capital, Tripoli. Plans for a national reconciliation conference now 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.
The Arab Spring didn’t work out for the people of Egypt either. Instead, 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 well 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 whom the government has purged.
It turned out that replacing a dictator with his de facto deputy is not the path to freedom and prosperity.
This is a lesson that Algerians appear to have learned. Protesters have reacted to the appointment of Bensalah with rage, vowing to continue with their demonstrations until “le pouvoir (the power)” has been dismantled. Sudanese revolutionaries too will have to ensure that their calls for change are not hijacked by the army, whose interests are not best served by a genuine democratic transition.
Until then, celebrations should come with a caveat: that there is plenty of work still to be done.