Parallel paths

In only this month of April, two sitting Arab presidents have been forced out of office in the wake of popular uprisings. The common denominator of the two back-to-back revolts has been the call by the people of the two countries for a sea change in their governments, the interim takeover by the armies of both countries and the continuation of protests after their presidents left as people demanded to show the ruling elite the door.

The departure of Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir on April 11, after 16 weeks of demonstrations against him, was the second time this month that a leader in the region has been forced out after mass demonstrations. Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down on April 2 after six weeks of protests.

In both cases, a hitherto hidden disconnect between the people and those in position to rule came to light, taking government institutions in both countries by complete surprise.

The two men fell to a common opponent – popular protests. In each case, concessions at different points might have emboldened the protesters. In the two instances, the militaries of both countries decided to support the popular demands for change.

Economic hardships were at the root cause for the call for change. The governments grappled with rising debts, widening deficits and swelling, youthful populations. Food, energy and fuel subsidies have been cut across the region, pushing up living costs as youth joblessness soars. The Arab world has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate, with about 30 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds out of work. The result is that households are being asked to make greater sacrifices. And a better educated, more informed generation of young Arabs, armed with smartphones and filled with aspiration, is desperate for more equitable systems and better economic prospects.

Social economic pressures will only increase. The World Bank predicts that if current demographic trends persist, the Middle East and North Africa will need to create more than 300 million jobs by 2050. Just to keep up with the region’s demographic bulge, the region needs to “create immediately” more than 10 million jobs a year, it warns.

What began as unrest over economic grievances morphed into calls for political reform. Deteriorating living standards of the majority, the growing wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots, and high youth unemployment have all been made worse by the political disenfranchisement of the younger generation.

There is also the threat of the presence of highly-politicized Islamist groups waiting in the shadows to assume power once the power structures either fail to deal effectively with popular demands for political change, or find themselves forced to rely, temporarily, on these forces to regain control.

To be sure, Sudan and Algeria have little choice now but to belatedly push through economic reforms as their traditional models become increasingly unsustainable. But without significant job creation and political reforms there is a real risk that governments are merely sowing the seeds for the next revolt. The immediate test will be how the militaries in Sudan and Algeria proceed. If they fail genuinely to meet the demands of their people and merely seek to preserve the old regimes, they will only be storing up more problems for the future.

It has been a huge last 10 days for African politics with 50 years of presidential rule between two leaders ending, with striking similarities. Young people who have only known life under Bouteflika or Bashir are now waking up with both leaders gone and their nations poised for change.

Now, the Algerian and Sudanese armies must make sure to channel massive popular unrest into peaceful avenues of change. However, this difficult process needs leaders that listen to their people, and have enough popular legitimacy to steer the countries toward a more secure and more stable democratic system.