These are heady days. Across the Middle East and North Africa, hundreds of thousands of angry citizens have taken to the streets, calling for freedom, insisting that dictators step aside and demanding a voice in their own destinies.
But even as extraordinary change roils the region, it is important to remember that deposing a dictator and shucking off the ancien regime does not lead inexorably or immediately to democracy. Think of France in 1789 or Russia in 1917 or Iran in 1979. In fact, the lesson of these and other precedents is that it is only in the weeks, months and even years after radical change is proclaimed that it becomes clear what will follow.
Consider southern Sudan. In January, the region was flooded with reporters covering its historic referendum to secede from its parent country, severing links with the regime in Khartoum. Independence made sense; the British had many years earlier squeezed the south into a broader, nearly 1-million-square-mile nation whose linguistic, cultural and racial contradictions were painfully apparent. The merger resulted in half a century of violence — cross-border raids from the Arab north into the black African south, kidnappings, slavery and one of the longest-running civil wars in Africa.
So there was reason for exhilaration when secession was approved. Photos and video captured people dancing and waving flags in the streets of Juba, the capital-to-be.
But just a month later, southern Sudan is off the front pages. As far as most Americans know, it’s a story that had a happy ending. In truth, the denouement has been troubling. On Feb. 20, for instance, police waving pistols raided the Juba offices of the Citizen newspaper, reportedly in retaliation for an article criticizing the police force. The week before, officials acknowledged that 211 people had died in a clash between the army and a renegade general; many of the dead were women and children.
The challenges ahead are enormous. A desperately poor, famine- and flood-prone region with little democratic tradition must now figure out how to resettle millions of refugees, divide oil revenues between north and south, and unite dozens of disparate tribes while building a new nation.
The decision to secede was not a mistake, nor are these challenges terribly surprising. But they serve as a reminder of the dangers of short attention spans. When crowds gather in Cairo or Tripoli or Juba, all eyes are focused — but later, when it’s time to figure out what comes next, the world has often moved on. The fact is that revolutions — those won in the streets as well as those won at the polls — require patient, long-term follow-up to succeed: institution-building and human rights monitoring and election observers and foreign aid and constitutional advisors and diplomatic pressure. Winning a revolution is difficult, but rebuilding a nation is at least as hard.