Arab citizens learn to live in, adapt to and cope with five different controlling, self-serving, adversarial realities: the government, the military, the religious establishment, the militia and the outside powers. Any time there is a new Arab uprising we witness courage and hope. Recently two Arab nations, Sudan and Algeria, surprised the world with their distinct but parallel revolts. Success would be miraculous and far-reaching.
Which of these two ongoing North African Arab uprisings is more resilient in confronting the counterrevolutionary forces? To answer this complex question, consider five formidable challenges the demonstrators have to deal with: the legacy of the deposed rulers, the credibility of the military transition teams, the role of Islamists in the respective power structures, the impact of the militias in the protest, and the intervention of the regional and foreign powers.
In Sudan, the thirty-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir was terminated by a popular uprising which erupted in December 2018; and in Algeria, the twenty-year rule of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika was terminated by an equally impressive uprising which emerged in February. Sudan’s revolt has been active for over 4 months and Algeria’s for over 6 months.
In these two Arab countries the pressure to oust the two presidents originated from a popular protest, but it was the military which orchestrated the step down of the unpopular rulers; it was the military which automatically assumed power, without the consent of the people who seek total regime change. In both countries, the representatives of the uprisings are opposed to the unfortunate military power-grab. Since the departure of the dictators, the protestors have been engaged in tense on-and-off negotiations with the army for the purpose of reaching a national consensus on a plan of transition.
Until lately, the leaders of the Sudanese uprising had been making significant progress in negotiating acceptable terms with the Transition Military Council for the smooth transfer of authority to civilian rule. In Algeria negotiations with the chief of the armed forces have been slow-moving and superficial. The latest message to the protestors from the chief of the armed forces, General Gaid Salah, as patriarchal as ever, says “follow the constitution to avoid the danger of political vacuum.”
But on June 3 the uprising in Sudan met a serious setback. A murderous Sudanese paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Force, RSF, suddenly attacked the peaceful protestors resulting in 130 fatalities and several hundred injuries.
Despite this setback, the Sudanese democracy initiative continues and the struggle remains non-violent. The demonstrators have shifted their strategy from centralized street demonstrations to decentralized nation-wide civil disobedience. After the international outcry to this brutal crackdown, the military rulers have softened their position and are ready for unconditional negotiations with the protestors. But the protestors are not willing to negotiate unless their demands are met: prisoners released, internet restored and the recent massacre investigated. Regardless of how the course of negotiations develops it has become clear that the Sudanese military rulers are unpredictable and unreliable. The savage assault has shown that Omar al-Bashir’s style of despotic leadership continues in Sudan’s military; his legacy is active. In contrast, the Algerian army, although rigid and possessive about power, is still respected by the Algerian people. It is the army chief General Gaid Salah who is gradually losing the trust of the protestors.
The third challenge to the protestors is the status of religious institutions in each of the two societies. This factor includes the power of Islamic political parties and the outlook of society toward the role of religion in politics. In Sudan a regressive form of an Islamist movement is strong and the constitution is Sharia-oriented. But in Algeria, the parties of political Islam are divided and have lost much of their clout and credibility. However, religion was one of several mobilizing forces in the Algerian struggle for liberation from France in the 1950s. In the current Algerian constitution, Islam has been a source of legislation but not the dominant source.
Militias are another threat to reform movements. Sudan’s instability and chaotic politics have for decades allowed the militia to proliferate. Al-Bashir sponsored the RSF militia to deal with his domestic problems and used them as mercenaries abroad. The RSF led a racial, genocidal attack on the rebel Darfur community in the west of Sudan in 2003; they have been active in warfare again in Darfur and elsewhere over the past four years. Algeria does not have any tolerance for militant sub-state organizations. In past decades, Algeria’s militias have been virtually eliminated with brutal force by the national armed forces.
The last challenge faced by the two uprisings pertains to the influence of outside powers. The protestors in both countries are admired by the international community but not by the powerful regional powers. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt are supporting the Khartoum government and financing Sudan’s near-bankrupt army. The Sudanese junta is in close contact with Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The message from most of the leaders of the Arab states to the protestors is: de-stabilizing rebellions are unwelcome. With rare exceptions, Arab rulers fear a democracy wave across their borders; freedom and equality necessitate the overhauling of autocratic systems. https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/the-battle-for-democracy-in-sudan-26234191
On the other hand, leading regional powers diplomatically and politically support the self-assigned military transitions. Moreover, Sudan relies heavily on regional (and international) aid. https://lobelog.com/remaking-al-bashirs-regime-in-sudan/. Algeria is not dependent on financial assistance from the Gulf States or elsewhere. Making war was a form of “fundraising” for deposed al-Bashir and his followers. For easy cash, over ten thousand of Sudan’s young men (some children) are fighting abroad, as mercenaries, within the Saudi-led coalition, in Yemen’s senseless war.
Using this five-factor comparative model for assessing uprising challenges, it appears that Sudan’s protestors have a greater threat from counter-revolutionary forces than Algeria’s protestors. First, the inconsistent and violent character of the Sudanese junta mirrors al-Bashir’s violent and unreliable record. In contrast, the Algerian armed forces have not yet taken any dramatic or violent moves against the uprising. It may be harder for the Sudanese uprising to strike a reliable deal with the army establishment. Also, it may be harder for Sudan’s uprising to count on uniting their people on a secular democratic front given the strength of Islamists in Khartoum. Third, Algeria’s resilient protestors show their stamina in resisting the intervention of regional and foreign powers. The state control of militias and tribal divisions also help during phases of political transition.
This comparison of the resilience of the two uprisings is limited to five factors; the accuracy of assessment is, all said, far from perfect. For instance, the threats to reform posed by ethnic and sectarian tensions are hard to measure. These tensions are momentarily suppressed (especially in Sudan) by the protestors to preserve national unity.
Regardless of which uprising is more resilient, the battle for democracy is complex and unpredictable. Still, there are signs of hope for both countries. In Sudan, women are in leadership roles in the struggle. Some regional involvement has been helpful for Sudan: while Washington is staying neutral, African leaders, particularly, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are offering sincere and rational mediation between the protestors and the Transition Military Council. The most impressive feature of the Algerian uprising is the determination to protect the negotiations from manipulative outside intervention.
Given the deep distrust of Arab military leadership to open systems of governance, these two uprisings are taking on a formidable task. If they succeed the entire Arab world will change. Even if they fail they will have left some precious lessons for the inevitable future cycles of protest.