After anti-government protests enveloped many corners of North Africa a year ago, political commentators seemed optimistic that the Arab Spring would spread southward to sub-Saharan Africa. But while there is reason for optimism about the region's future, hopes for rapid democratization would be misplaced. A year after the first uprisings in North Africa, it is clear that sub-Saharan Africa is not poised on the verge of an African Spring.
Arab Spring, Global Repercussions
Soon after the first uprisings of the Arab Spring, observers wondered what impact the events in North Africa and the Middle East would have beyond the Arab world. Though sharing many of the demographic characteristics of the Arab Spring states, sub-Saharan Africa diverges in key ways that make an African Spring seem unlikely. China, too, faces little risk of contagion, but Beijing has been forced to adapt its outdated Middle East policy to rapidly changing circumstances. And across the Mediterranean, Europe risks missing an opportunity to more effectively engage the region due to an instinctive fear of political Islam.
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In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Beijing has found to its dismay that its past policy of diplomatic ambivalence in dealing with Middle Eastern countries is no longer tenable. It suddenly has to balance its support of the regimes in power with recognition of the aspirations of the populations in revolt in many of these countries. In short, staying aloof is rapidly becoming a luxury that China can ill afford.
Will the Arab Spring finally end the European Union's lethargic approach to the southern Mediterranean and lead to more serious support for democratization? Don't hold your breath. The eurozone crisis, the success of Islamist parties in post-Arab Spring elections and the EU's reluctance to embrace Turkey all suggest that "business as usual" with only cosmetic changes is likely to remain the norm.