May 4, 2019

Arab Spring 2.0

By Abás Tanus Mafud

Between the Tunisian Revolution and the Egyptian Paradox


The revolutionary seeds sown in the streets of Tunisia in 2011 have sprouted in Algeria and Sudan. This month brought about the final act for the Middle East’s two remaining gerontocratic regimes. The protestors in Algeria and Sudan will inevitably face a crossroad: will the momentum in the streets be enough to propel a new constitutional regime as in Tunisia? Or will they regress back into the restoration of military conservatism?

The genesis of the Algerian and Sudanese protests traces its origin to oil, bread and unemployment. In these countries, national incomes were largely affected by international oil turmoil. Sudan one of the poorest countries in the world (HDI 0.502) suffer increasing economic fragility following the South Sudan independence and the loss of 2/3 of their oil reserves. Meanwhile, the deterioration of Algerian public services has negatively affected the lifestyle of younger generations, pushing many to face the dilemma of undertaking the risky European adventure for a better life.

Graft and entrenched palace intrigues did not do these regimes any favours. The term “corrupt” might be an understatement to describe both Sudan and Algeria. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Algeria is rated 105th and Sudan 172nd of 180 surveyed countries. Understandably, streets chant like “we want this system to end and all the thieves be judged” were front and centre during the mass mobilization of these past weeks.

On the other hand, the political structures allowed the armed forces in both countries to consolidate their control over financial resources, absorbing a huge amount of the national GDP. Conversely, 16% of the Algerian public spending budget is directed to the military. In Sudan, this figure amounts to a shocking 30.9%. This situation guaranteed the possibility of embarking into risky foreign policy adventures such as Omar al-Bashir’s government role in the international coalition deployed in Yemen against Houthi rebels.

Nevertheless, the thrust of street demonstrations pushed armed forces to break their decades-long alliances with established government figures. Afraid of being cast to the dustbin of history – and possibly a prison cell – generals like Ahmed Gaid Salah showed Algerian former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika the way out and sponsored a transitional government. Similarly, in Sudan, a military junta displaced Omar al-Bashir, imposing its own caretaker administration, and appointed Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan as its chairman of the Transitional Military Council.

Although the military leadership might agree with the protestors that the time has come for the old guard, a complete democratisation of the Algerian and Sudanese institutions is anathema for them. Their appointments for the transitional governments is evidence that they believe that established strongmen are up to the task of diffusing social discontent. However, the general sentiment among protestors is that the fledging transitions must not be led by politicians tainted by connections to Bouteflika and al-Bashir. Their demand for a clean slate, not just decapitation, is the reason why the streets in Algiers and Khartoum are still packed with placards and fist-waving. For them, the Egyptian solution seemingly professed by the country’s new overlords represents the road that should not be taken. The men in uniform should not decide the country’s future as Mohammed Hussein Tantawi (Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt) and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi did.

Arab leaders are witnessing the protest with concerns. Nevertheless, the Arab League’s reaction has been limited to Al Jazeera’s tenuous coverage of the crisis. Priorly, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had reached to their pockets for USD 3 billion to prop up their allies in the Sudan Transitional Military Government in order to avoid Iranian, Qatari and Muslim Brotherhood penetration in Sudan as had previously happened with Mohamed Morsi’s presidency in Egypt (2012-2013). However, the social mobilization in Sudan has opposed external interference, an opinion strongly expressed by the dictum that “we [Sudanese] do not want Saudi help even if we have to eat beans and falafel”.

The African Union (AU) has taken the opposite track by pressuring the Sudan transitional government to reach a deal with the opposition. Similarly, the United States expressed its interest in the dialogue between the military and civilian parties in Sudan. Regarding the Algerian situation, the AU supported a call to elections in July (despite social refusal).

The mobilization in Algeria and Sudan have been motivated by the Tunisian promises for real democratization and the end of entrenched economic inequalities. Democracy would be a novel phenomenon for both countries because they were dominated by perpetual and undemocratic leaders.

But the fear of the emergence of a new “eternal leader” looms over the Algerian population. Their Sudanese counterpart also awaits in hope that democratic elections will be the kick-off to a new political class. As a consequence, they are refusing to accept pro-regime leadership during the pre-election period, with protestors having become increasingly critical about military actors.

Finally, social representatives do not want to repeat the Egyptian vicious cycle. Democratization never arrived in the country that most unforgettably represented the pinnacle of the Arab Spring’s success. At the same time, protestors in both Algeria and Sudan are aware that if they want to deepen their path towards change, they must overcome the pretensions of both their domestic military and the foreign interference of Gulf countries. As a result, the resolution of this challenge will be a key test to observe if the Arab Revolts achieve their goals or merely lead back to conservative restoration in Algeria and Sudan.

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