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Africa and the Arab Spring: A New Era of Democratic Expectations

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A question often asked since the launch of the Arab Spring in January 2011 is what effect will these popular protests have on democracy in the rest of Africa. Frequently overlooked in this discussion is that Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing its own democratic surge during this time with important advances in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia, among other countries. This progress builds on nearly two decades of democratic institution building on the continent. Even so, the legacy of “big-man” politics continues to cast a long shadow over Africa’s governance norms. Regime models on the continent, moreover, remain highly varied, ranging from hard core autocrats, to semiauthoritarians, democratizers, and a select number of democracies.

Recognizing these complex and still fluid crosscurrents, this Working Group embarked on an analysis of the linkages between the Arab Spring and African democracy — with an eye on the implications for governance norms on the continent over the next several years.

A key finding of this analysis is that the effects of the Arab Spring on Africa must be understood in the much larger and longer-term context of Africa’s democratic evolution. While highly varied and at different stages of progress, democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa is not starting from scratch, unlike in most of the Arab world. Considered from this broader and more heterogeneous perspective, the direct effects of the Arab Spring on Sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic development are muted. There are few linear relationships linking events in North Africa to specific shifts in democratization on the continent. That said, the angst and frustration propelling the protests and unfolding transitions in the Arab world, particularly Egypt and Tunisia, resonate deeply with many Africans who are closely following events in the north.

The Arab Spring is thus serving as a trigger, rather than a driver, for further democratic reforms in the region. There have been protests in more than a dozen African capitals demanding greater political pluralism, transparency, and accountability following the launch of the Arab Spring. Some have even explicitly referenced North Africa as a model. Likewise, a number of African governments are so fearful of the Arab Spring’s influence that they have banned mention of the term on the Internet or public media.

The democratic protests in North Africa, consequently, are having an impact and shaping the debate on the future of democracy in Africa. They are also teaching important lessons that democracy is not bestowed on but earned by its citizens. Once initiated, it is not a passive or self-perpetuating governance model, but one that requires the active engagement of citizens. Perhaps most meaningfully, then, the Arab Spring is instigating changes in expectations that African citizens have of their governments.

What makes these changed expectations especially potent is that they dovetail with more fundamental drivers of change that are likely to spur further democratic advances in Africa in the next several years.

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