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Might of the Masses

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For a few brief moments last week, people power came to Africa. In the days before the upsurge of popular protest, a ham-fisted military man had rigged an election to ensure himself victory in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. Later came bloody clashes between supporters of rival politicians and a growing sense that Ivory Coast, once a symbol of peace and stability, could slip into anarchy. But during the hours in between something astonishing occurred: ordinary people forced an unpopular ruler from power. Crowds sang the national anthem. Soldiers and policemen hugged marchers. People rushed to reclaim their normal lives. On Boulevard de la Republique in Abidjan, a man in a green and white nylon tracksuit picked his way around piles of broken glass and burning trash. "We're trying to hold onto hope," said Abdul Akeem, 21, as he celebrated with friends in the city.

Successful popular uprisings are rare in Africa. Protests are usually crushed by force or manipulated into irrelevance at the ballot box. Ordinary Africans shrug and get on with their lives. But this time, inspired by the popular uprising that felled Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Africans took a stand Ś and won. The man they wanted rid of was General Robert Gue´, 59, a former military chief who seized power on Christmas Eve last year. The coup, the first since the country's independence from France in 1960, was initially popular; many Ivorians had grown unhappy with ousted President Henri Konan Bedie's authoritarian and ethnically divisive rule. But the general proved to be as corrupt and incompetent as his predecessor. Soldiers mutinied twice and the economy went into a tailspin. When Gue´ announced he would run in fresh elections, Ivorians feared they would be denied the very thing the Christmas coup had promised: a chance to have their say at the ballot box.

The election was a farce. The Supreme Court declared 14 of the 19 presidential hopefuls ineligible, leading as many as two-thirds of voters to boycott the poll. Early returns gave veteran opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo 51% to Gue´'s 40%. But then the electoral commission stopped counting. Ivorians glued to state television awaiting official results got a hospital soap opera instead. Two days after the vote, the Interior Ministry announced that because of irregularities with ballot papers the electoral commission had been dissolved. The winner: General Robert Gue´. "Today's success belongs to you," he told Ivorians. "It is your victory over the cruel maneuvers of Ivory Coast's enemies."

Protesters saw a different enemy. They took to the streets in Abidjan demanding that Gue´, who in chants and placard slogans they likened to Milosevic, step down. The international community condemned the electoral process. Gue´ ordered the army to break up the protests and for a few hours the two sides fought running battles. Six protesters were killed. But then the momentum changed. Gue´'s presidential guard remained loyal but rank-and-file soldiers waved on thousands of demonstrators as they surged toward the radio and television stations and the presidential palace. Many simply laid down their arms. "They told me they were tired of firing at the people," said a guard in one city building in which four troops took refuge.

With support slipping away, Gue´ fled with his family, reportedly to nearby Benin. Gbagbo ordered a recount and declared himself the new President. "Ivory Coast could not accept this electoral coup d'etat," he said on state television. "You came out in hundreds of thousands into the streets to ensure that right will prevail over might." Unlike in Serbia, however, the euphoria did not last. Within hours, supporters of Alassane Ouattara, a popular former Prime Minister and one of the 14 candidates the Supreme Court barred from running, took to the streets to demand new elections in which all aspirants could participate. The streets again rang to the sound of gunfire. Gbagbo loyalists attacked Ouattara's plush lagoon-front home, forcing him to take refuge in the German Embassy.

Gbagbo, 55, says new elections are unnecessary because he will form a government of national unity. But unity will be hard to achieve. "Yesterday, the people marched. We marched in the face of guns. They killed two of my friends," says Kouana Zonti Edmond, 25. "And at this moment, when we want reconciliation, Alassane [Ouattara] calls on his people to come out and march again." Ivorians proved they can stand up to a bully; now they have to learn to live together in peace again.