Algeria and Sudan: The next (but not last) Arab Spring cycle

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State building takes decades not years. It is easier to topple dictators than regimes, and it is faster to change regimes than ideas. Protestors need to agree and organize to make a good transition to democracy. State building requires a review of traditional values which are considered absolute, self-evident or prescribed by the divine.

The 2011 uprisings ousted entrenched rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, but not in Syria. Another sobering outcome: only Tunisia succeeded, albeit with some reversals, in bringing a relatively peaceful transition. For many, the “failure” of four out of five uprisings spoiled the image of the Arab Spring. With the resignation of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2nd and the military toppling of Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir on April 11, the attention of the international community has been re-drawn to the vitality of this regional movement

In looking deeper into the process of sociopolitical change the Arab Spring has proven to be irreversible and inspiring. While the Arab Spring series of uprisings in 2011 removed dictators, the emerging Arab Spring events of 2019 (in Sudan and Algeria) aim at removing political systems. And future Arab Spring uprisings will focus more on changing ideas and attitudes. In the years to come, there will be new initiatives of reform to soften patriarchal values in the family, the school and the worship place. This advanced round of behavior change is so critical for democracy.

Protesters have learned some useful lessons since the 2011 outbreaks. It took only two months of peaceful, nationwide street protest for the Algerians to oust a leader who had been in power for twenty years. And it took only four months for the Sudanese to depose a dictator who had been in power for thirty years.

Feeling threatened, the military establishment has intervened in the current round of protests which aim at comprehensive regime change. In the Algerian uprising the chief of the armed forces staged a soft “coup” by giving a nod for Bouteflika to step down; the next day the president got the message and abdicated power. The powerful army instantly took over. In Sudan President Al-Bashir was ousted directly by his officers when it became clear that the people were united in resisting maximal state oppression. A Sudanese junta assumed power planning to take over the process of transition over the next two years. Really? The protesters in these two large African countries are upset with the intervention of the military and their automatic assumption of power.

The current Arab spring debate is shifting focus: it is no longer about the efficacy of the Arab Spring but about the nature of the political transition. This second cycle of the Arab Spring exposes the military as a dominant agent of stagnation, a hidden oppressor, a business-minded stake-holder in the status quo, and having a conflict of interest with the people. The army is rapidly losing its shiny image of being the “protector of the nation.”

History tells us that the process of democracy building is often messy; however, each uprising often sows seeds of change for the future. Moreover, some analysts realize that even the tragic mistakes of dictators in cracking down on dissidents provide lessons of “paths not to be taken.”

Learning from the recent past, today’s protestors in Sudan and Algeria are targeting not only the ruler, but the entire corrupt system in which leadership was only a part. In a weekly commentary, Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, challenges the Algerian and the Sudanese establishment to make hard choices: [The].. future is in the hands of their militaries and ancien-regime elites: Those elites could opt for real transition, as in Tunisia, or a temporary and false one, as happened in Egypt. The option of confrontation, as happened in Libya and Syria, seems, happily, to have been avoided.

Suspense is mounting day by day as the military in Khartoum and Algiers face the challenge of pressuring the protestors to terminate their resistance, and instead to trust the generals to “facilitate” regime change. But the protestors realize that the military establishment does not have the will and the legitimacy to conduct political transition.

The standoff between the military and the protestors in these two parallel uprisings is similar in an important way: there is a delicate balance of moral power between the soldiers who are responsible for security, and the protestors who are in charge of the soul of the nation.

In a recent Washington-based panel on Algeria’s uprising, four regional experts agreed that the protestors must better articulate their political demands. Rochdi Alloui, an Algerian American professor; Amel Boubeker, a French Algerian researcher; William Lawrence, a visiting George Washington University professor and Alexi Arieff, a US-based Congressional Research Service specialist, agreed that it is time for the Algerians to organize, make reasonable moves to work with the military and identify leadership for the transition. Alloui asserted that if the presidential elections are to take place, as the military expects, on the 4th of July, they will not be “genuine elections.” For one thing, the current voting lists include many names of “dead people”; and campaigning for elections will “need at least one year.”

The Sudanese protestors may be ahead of the Algerians in negotiating with the military. They have informally assigned their representatives and proposed their lists of demands. They requested the dissolution of the Military Council of Transition and the release of protestors held in jail. Ignoring some concessions from the Generals, the uprising wants the transition team to be civilian, but to include representatives from the military. They reject the idea of a two-year military rule. The relative flexibility of the Sudanese military reflects its insecurity with divisions among its leaders and pressure from the outside world.

In Algeria, the protestors are also not ready to let the interim president and the rest of the “ancien regime” be in charge of the coming presidential elections. We will hopefully see more concessions from the Sudanese and Algerian armies as the impasse continues.

There seems to be no predisposition for the Generals to crack down on two uprisings (especially in Sudan) which have gained momentum. The military in both countries should hand over the political transition to a civilian group. But since the protestors are not yet organized, the military is likely to try to exploit this organizational weakness and insist on taking a large role in the transition.

Unless regional or international pressure is seriously applied to this two military leadership the outcome of the 2019 Arab Spring is likely to be limited. Regrettably, Washington is not yet much willing to spend precious political capital on the situation in Algeria and in Sudan. As for the region’s role in this situation, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would not welcome two Arab states transforming into democratic regimes; that would accelerate the pace of freedom in the Arab world. Second, a free Sudan would weaken the Saudi front in the war on Yemen; Sudan’s mercenaries in this fratricidal war would be withdrawn once a truly new government is established. And a free Algeria would also threaten the status-quo bloc in the Arab world. Incidentally, Egyptian President Sisi is in process of expanding his authority and extending his term 11 years. Unlike the Arab League, the African Union has been vocal on Sudan’s army grab of power.

Nevertheless, 2019 uprisings will show progress toward democracy beyond the level of 2011 uprisings. The seeds of change for the next round of uprisings have been sown.