03/07/2011 10:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Southern Sudan Should Be Watching Egypt

Egyptians recently converged on the streets of Cairo to demand the ouster of a leader they accused of being out of touch and unaccountable to his people. Seventeen-hundred miles to the south, another crowd poured into the streets of Juba to celebrate the January referendum results favoring independence for southern Sudan. The two mass gatherings were radically different, but the southern Sudanese would do well to keep their eyes on Egypt. The overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak serves as the most recent reminder that the interplay between people and government can make or break a country.

The birth of southern Sudan as a new nation promises to be a historic moment for the African continent. But southern Sudan's leaders have a lot of work ahead of them if they are to disprove many analysts who have already dubbed it "the next failed state."

Potential flashpoints abound: the establishment of borders, especially in the hotly contested Abyei region, the division of oil revenues and taxation policies. Recently, the separation of army assets in one border area caused deadly tensions. The soon-to-be new country is also one of the poorest in the world, with an almost total lack of infrastructure, abysmal infant mortality rates, and sky-high rates of illiteracy. An entire generation caught up in Africa's longest civil war never received an education.

The new southern Sudanese government will play a prominent role in tackling these massive challenges. Global lessons -- from the Balkans to elsewhere in Africa -- should be analyzed for southern Sudan's unique situation. It will be particularly important for southern Sudan to strike the right balance between a strong central government and decentralized responsibility. In addition, local and state level officials need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources to be able to be accountable to citizens.

But just as becoming a nation is not the work of government alone, forging a stable, secure and prosperous future for southern Sudan won't be either. Good governance is everyone's responsibility.

Governance -- the day-to-day ways that people make decisions -are the roots of any nation. Healthy roots are nurtured by a public empowered to help establish priorities, hold officials accountable, and be a trusted partner of government through their civic responsibilities. We've seen all too clearly in Egypt and elsewhere what can happen when these elements are not in place: the tree becomes unstable, liable to topple in shifting political winds.

Since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended Sudan's 21-year civil war, the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps has been supporting southern Sudanese communities and their leaders to play mutually reinforcing roles.

One example is Dot Baai, an organization in Abyei that helps women, many of whom are war widows, provide for themselves and their families. Teresa Deng, Dot Baai's founder, calls civil-society organizations "the eyes of the community" because they bring attention to local challenges that might otherwise go unaddressed. Teresa's leadership role affords her a seat at the table with the newly formed Abyei area government. As one minister said, "We need to hear from the people, but that is hard if people do not understand government. Civil society can help."

Establishing a stable and responsive government is also just good business sense. The same government services that citizen groups advocate for -- paved roads, reliable electricity, access to education, security and regulation that supports them -- make sustainable economic development possible. In Egypt, where most people don't legally own property or work in the formal economy, parts of this system have broken down. In southern Sudan, economic growth will be crucial for engaging the enormous youth population; roughly half of southern Sudanese are under the age of 18, and that number is rising. Like young people everywhere, they crave the economic opportunities to build a better life.

Creating good governance is, above all, the responsibility of the women and men of southern Sudan, but the international community must help. The U.S., other donor governments, and the United Nations have invested a great deal of time and energy in the six years since Sudan emerged from civil war. Letting our focus slip before southern Sudan's anticipated independence in July and the fragile years following new statehood could erode all previous investments.

Our new challenge is to continue supporting the burgeoning government institutions, citizen groups and the private sector, as well as robust mechanisms for constructive engagement among all three groups. Working together with the leaders and people of southern Sudan, we can ensure that the jubilant crowds of Juba don't morph into the discontented masses of Cairo.