It was Tunisia. Now it is Egypt. Who is next?

Street protests are bringing about change in North Africa perhaps the rest of the Arab world. They may even move south. The protests are a feast for the media and individuals and groups craving for change for whatever reason.

Street protests are bringing about change in North Africa perhaps the rest of the Arab world. They may even move south. The protests are a feast for the media and individuals and groups craving for change for whatever reason.

But those in a rush for change need to be careful. The change that comes may not be what they bargained for.
Take Tunisia, for instance. Zine al Abidine Ben Ali left in a hurry and ignominy. But he also left behind a power vacuum. Protests continue. Stability has not completely returned to the country.

The government that replaced him is largely made up of people who served in his administration, or are members of his party. They have the same world view and manner of handling political issues. To that extent there has been no change. It is the same system without Ben Ali.

And that is the source of continuing protests. Tunisians want the system dismantled.
Although this is to be expected, it creates more problems.

What will replace the dismantled system? The monopoly on power by Ben Ali and his party meant that no alternative political views were organised well enough to step into government and run the state. That is why there is a vacuum.

Secondly, the protesters were not organised around a political programme. The protests were outbursts of pent-up, general discontent with the way Ben Ali had managed their country as it affected them individually. They did not articulate an alternative vision.

The likely result is that various individuals and groups may try to take advantage of the situation and fill the vacuum. Already Rached Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of an Islamist organisation has returned and will try to provide leadership to the protests.

Before any of them can do that, however, we shall continue to see all the anger directed at Ben Ali and his family, and not at attempts to reconstruct the state. And as they get busy with this, another dictator may install himself before they know it.

The situation in Egypt is not much different. The protests are also the outcome of general discontent about mismanagement of the country. They are not the result of ideological differences with the current government. Because of this they are leaderless and lack a coherent plan beyond the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

There are some differences, however. In Egypt some leaders and organisations with the capacity to take control of the protests and use them to wrest power from Mubarak are emerging.

Mohammed El Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is one of them. He had presented himself as an alternative to President Hosni Mubarak in the next elections even before the current protests. His problem, however, is that he does not have a political structure and constituency to support his leadership bid. Should he, for instance, find himself the leader of the protest movement, he will find that all the administrative and political structures are those of the Mubarak period. That would stand in the way of any reforms.

Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood, the only politically organised group with a record of opposition to Mubarak. They are already positioning themselves to play an active political role in the post-Mubarak era whenever that comes about.

Egypt may not suffer the same power vacuum as Tunisia, but at the moment the protests have a leadership vacuum that will lead to instability.

Instability in Egypt, however, does not have the same impact as the one in Tunisia. Egypt is an important player in Africa and the Middle East. Prolonged instability will have adverse effects in North Africa, the Middle East and even the Nile Basin. Many actors outside Egypt have an interest in a quick, satisfactory resolution of the political situation there. We can therefore expect that it will not drag on for very much longer.

External involvement, although inevitable, will add to the confusion as it has in other parts of Africa. There might be attempts to install a leader amenable to some, particularly Western, interests. If that happens, whoever it is will be seen as an external imposition and be robbed of any legitimacy. That may divide the country and cause more instability.

It has happened in Ivory Coast. Mr Allassane Ouattara may have won the election, but the speed with which he was endorsed by the international community has presented him to a section of Ivorians and some Africans as the president of outsiders.

Externally-brokered solutions in Kenya and Zimbabwe have led to continuous friction between the coalition partners and could even create paralysis in government.

Change may be coming to North Africa in unexpected ways. And long-serving presidents in other parts of Africa must be wary of what may happen to them. But those pushing for change at any cost need to be careful. You do not want a result for which you did not bargain. That is a real possibility.


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