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North African unrest: will it spread south as well as east?

January 27, 2011

In response to an earlier blog of mine, Sir Edward Clay commented on my decision to limit my series of Ten Things to Know about Africa, to Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). His comment was that at least one of the factors I ascribed to SSA was also relevant to the countries along the southern Mediterranean shore. He made a good point.

But looking at recent events in Tunisa, Egypt, Algeria and now Yemen: the unrest seems to spreading eastwards and westwards, and has jumped across the Red Sea, but so far at least is failing to spread southwards across the Sahara.

I wonder why not. Is it because the regimes in SSA are less repressive, or repressive in a different, less centralised way, with a less tightly-fitting lid to the pressure cooker? Or perhaps it’s that young people there are less proactive or courageous (or foolhardy, their mothers might say?) than their counterparts further north? Is it something to do with culture or religion? Is that the countries in the north are wealthier?

Or is it that there are perceived similarities and connections between and among people across the Arab belt, who are therefore quicker to see the need or opportunity to act as their “brothers and sisters” have done; whereas young people in SSA feel less of a connection, don’t see the rioters in Tunisia as their brothers and sisters, and therefore don’t relate their own situation to that of the people in the Maghreb and Egypt, and don’t engage in copy-cat demonstrations.

Perhaps the countries in SSA share a number of characteristics with those north of the Sahara from an objective outsider’s perspective. For example they are ex-colonies of one kind or another, they have made limited progress towards democracy, they have patronage-based political economies, and they have massive youth bulge. But there’s also something other than the desert itself which divides the northern countries from those further south. Whatever it is, perhaps it is protecting some Sub-saharan regimes from the kind of pressures the governments further north are experiencing right now.

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