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Change is sweeping across Africa this month, from Tunisia in the north to Sudan a little south, to sub-Saharan Cote d'Ivoire.

None of these unfolding and uncertain situations is directly linked. But their cumulative impact on Arab, Middle East and African politics is significant. The public is becoming more hopeful and confident, while rulers are torn between giving in to popular demands and locking down further. Did the regime in Tunisia fail to open up in time, or was the response to protesters too soft?

Even though these events are influencing the perspectives of the rulers and the governed across the region, every country has its own specific circumstances and considerations.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has carefully quashed the secular opposition, so the only viable alternative to his party is the Muslim Brotherhood. This makes Mubarak the bulwark against extremists, but it also makes it more likely that any post-Mubarak government might be run by radical Muslims. And Mubarak has doubled down by promoting his son to be his successor.

Politically, Sudan is uncharted territory. Southern Sudan's referendum could lead to the first split of an African country since... Eritrea? It won't be pretty, but it also involves a genocidal dictator, so it will represent yet another milestone for "democracy" or self-determination if the south succeeds.

Cote d'Ivoire was coming out from under civil war and some latter-day French imperialism, then its president decided to ignore the results of an election that would have ended his tenure. Because of the turmoil in Sudan and a swath of failed states in central Africa, the African Union and Western powers are already pressuring President Gbagbo to step down before the road to stability is washed away in a spiral of violence and poverty.

Word is, President Obama plans to focus more on foreign policy and on Africa specifically this year. Just the holding of the Sudan referendum was a tribute to U.S. diplomacy, so the timing couldn't be better. Let's hope the results measure up.

Jack Rosen - January 19, 2011

 

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