Dr. Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and co-author of “The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace,” outlines what Egypt’s protest might mean for African governments, reformers and citizens.
Many Africans I’ve spoken with in the past few weeks have been riveted by unfolding events in Egypt. Most are hoping the winds of change on the Nile will blow south.
This resonance is easy to understand. Despite notable progress in a dozen or so countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a region, sub-Saharan Africa still has the second lowest democracy rating in the world (ahead of the Middle East). Autocratic leaders claiming to be bulwarks of stability, restricted civil liberties, corruption, widening disparities in wealth, police impunity, sham elections…are all too familiar to Africans.
Ironically, most Africans already ostensibly have the very things that the Egyptian protesters have been demanding –- a multiparty system, freedom of speech, independent media, elections, etc. In fact, only four of Africa’s 49 countries officially don’t have multi-party elections.
The problem is that despite this veneer, in most cases, these are hollow democracies. That is, they have no real mechanisms for checks and balances, minority protections, or real political participation and competition. These are the guts of democracy -– what makes it responsive and accountable -– and which make elections meaningful.
Unfortunately, lack of accountability typifies most of Africa’s political systems today. Some half of Africa’s governments are stuck at the authoritarian or “authoritarian-in-democracy-clothing” stage. Most are still personality rather than rules-based. Due to patronage, loyalties tend to be to the individual, rather than the institution. Leaders are above rather than subject to the law.
This stunted political environment –- with its cronyism, inhibited private sector, and controlled media –- in turn, directly contributes to Africa’s poverty and instability.
So, while there are major cultural, economic, and geographic differences, the Egyptian experience is likely to serve as a model to Africans. Like in the Arab world, however, protests are more likely to emerge in places already with a modicum of civil liberties, than in the most repressive contexts.
Having watched ordinary Egyptians challenge and topple the most powerful regime on the continent, Africans are going to be less willing to accept stolen elections, presidential term extensions, police impunity and high-level corruption.
Moreover, African reformers have the same powerful new tools to organize themselves that proved so crucial in Egypt: their cell phones and social media. More than a third of Africans now have access to mobile phones –- up from around five percent just a few years ago. This enormously levels the long tilted playing field. Those in power will no longer be able to monopolize the narrative –- or keep people from talking to one another.
The Egyptian revolution has raised the bar of expectations. The next time African citizens suffer egregious abuses of power, rather than simply wringing their hands, they will be asking, “Why not here?” And start pushing harder with demands for genuine democracy.