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In northern Africa, can the people’s discontent translate to democracy?

The demonstrations that have swept through northern Africa and ousted long-time strongmen are not yet over. Protesters in Sudan, Algeria, Libya and Mali are continuing to call for democratic reforms. Amid this moment of regional volatility, international power struggles threaten to push national dynamics past the breaking point. Nick Schifrin reports on North Africa's "spring of discontent."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Staying in Africa, the demonstrations that have swept through Northern Africa and ousted longtime strongmen are not over.

    Protesters in Sudan, Algeria, Libya, and Mali are still calling for democratic reforms.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Northern Africa, it is the spring of discontent. And one week after they deposed a dictator, Sudanese demonstrators are still on the streets, demanding a glorious summer of civilian control.

    At Friday prayers outside the Khartoum Defense Ministry, a cleric called for a representative government to replace the military-led transition council. And, as they have been for months, these demonstrators were majority women.

  • Fadia Khalaf:

    We are still protesting to make sure that all our demands are being achieved and that the military council is not cheating us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fadia Khalaf is a tour guide turned yellow-vest-wearing demonstrator. She and all of these protesters support the opposition's plan to present its own list of technocrat leaders.

  • Fadia Khalaf:

    We need a civilian government right now. If we do not see that then, we will continue in the sit-ins.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last week, those sit-ins pushed the military to remove 75-year-old Omar al-Bashir, who ruled since 1989 by waging wars while wearing a smile.

    In Southern Sudan and in Darfur, his militias scorched earth and massacred his enemies. Hundreds of thousands died, and suffered from famine. He was indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

    And he's not the only longtime regional strongman who's lost power. In Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned two weeks ago under the pressure of protests. And, today, hundreds of thousands of those protesters returned to the streets.

    They say a planned July election run by the military isn't good enough. They too want to replace a military-led regime they consider corrupt with a civilian-led government.

  • Saiid (through translator):

    We came out today to change the entire regime from its roots. Youth and old me are with us. We will not tire, and we will continue to protest every Friday until the regime falls. They must all leave. We are determined.

  • Salih Booker:

    There's been a boiling tempest in both of these countries, and it's reached a breaking point.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Salih Booker is the president and CEO of the Center for International Policy. He says, in both countries, the demonstrations began as protests against local issues, like food prices, but quickly became political calls for equality and fundamental change for generations of young protesters.

  • Salih Booker:

    They have not had educational opportunities. They have not had employment opportunities. And they have faced political restrictions on their freedom of speech, on their freedom of organization. Many of them have suffered from being imprisoned and have had physical human rights abuses.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Much of the region finds itself at a pivot point. In Libya, General Khalifa Haftar is trying to become a new strongman, and has left the country on the verge of all-out civil war.

    And in Mali, the prime minister and the entire government resigned yesterday, after ethnic violence that sparked widespread protests.

    The U.S. should side with the protesters who are demanding democracy, argues Salih Booker.

  • Salih Booker:

    Traditionally, the U.S. preoccupation has been with stability, and, traditionally, the United States has seen the military as the institution that can bring stability.

    Hopefully, this time, the U.S. won't make that mistake. In fact, the path to security and stability is through respect for human rights and political governance that actually represents the will of the people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But getting to that model of governance is contested. The countries are already proxy battles for regional politics. In Khartoum, protesters held aloft signs denouncing Middle East countries that have intervened on behalf of the military.

    Payton Knopf is a former diplomat who served in Sudan and the Middle East.

  • Payton Knopf:

    And that would be a nightmare scenario for Sudan. If you have the rivalries of the Middle East exported into this very fragile moment in Sudan, it certainly risks further fragmentation, further splintering, both of the various political elements in the country, but also the military and security elements.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And it's those security elements that protesters fear. In Egypt, eight years after the hope of the Arab Spring revolution, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi maintains widespread military influence and dramatically restricts freedoms.

    If today's protests are Arab Spring 2.0, the protesters have learned from Egypt's mistakes, says Booker.

  • Salih Booker:

    That they're not just focused on deposing old men who have been in office too long. They're intent on changing the system. They are revolutionaries. They want to rip out the corruption in the ruling parties, in the military, in other institutions. They want a clean sweep.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But these transitions are never easy. Sudan, Algeria and the region will continue to see protests, and it's not clear whether this discontent can actually transform into democracy.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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