2010 was the starting point of what the Western media called the Arab Spring. Whilst the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya were overthrown, other governments in the region were able to contain the social instability that this wave of protests caused. Algeria and Sudan belong to this second category of countries. In 2011 both Algeria and Sudan faced protest movements that escalated violently, but they did not lead to any significant changes in either regime. Since the first wave of the Arab Spring, the people of Algeria and Sudan have hoped for better governance and the departure of their long-ruling presidents, but have been paralyzed by fear after seeing the crises that the Arab Spring led to in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
After the beginning of his first mandate in 1999, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika made controversial amendments to the Algerian constitution in 2009 and in 2014, allowing himself to run for four consecutive terms in office. The former Sudanese President Omar El-Bashir rose to power thanks to a political coup in 1989, and had a similarly controversial rule, after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against El-Bashir in 2009 for crimes against humanity, war crimes and involvement in the genocide in Darfur. In both Algeria and Sudan in 2019 the people called on their leader to step down and, eventually, they succeeded. Given the similarities between the events of 2011 and 2019, can we consider the current Sudanese and Algerian situation as a second wave of the Arab Spring? And what role will the military play in the ongoing systemic transition?
Background on the Role of the Military
Both Sudan and Algeria have suffered from great violence in the 20th century. Sudan has faced a continuous war since the departure of the British colonialist troops in 1955, and the religious divides that separate the North and South of the country were a destabilizing factor after its post-colonial forced unification. After decades of civil war that caused many casualties, and a failure to cement the relationship between North and South Sudan, South Sudan became independent in 2011. In this continuous state of conflict, the army has played a fundamental role and has become a key state actor. In 1989, Omar El-Bashir, a military officer, took power by a political coup with the support of the National Islamic Front. El-Bashir then became Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. As a result, the Sudanese executive power and the state military were closely intertwined under the rule of El-Bashir.
Similarly, the 20th century in Algeria was somewhat defined by violence, particularly during the 1954 – 1962 War of Independence, and the “Black Decade” of 1992 – 2002. Bouteflika’s first election in 1999 was surrounded by criticism, as many said that the army had engineered the election in order to maintain their power over the executive branch of the state. However, during his time in office, Bouteflika reassembled and restructured the military in order to reduce its power. General Mohamad Mediene, former head of the Algerian Department of Intelligence and Security, was thought to be one of the key players in placing Bouteflika in power. After Mediene objected to Bouteflika’s efforts to run for a fourth term, Bouteflika opted to remove Mediene from his role in order to consolidate his own power. These sorts of strategic decisions were made throughout his four terms, as Bouteflika pushed back against the influence of the military elite through the removal of General Touati and Mohammed Lamari from their posts as President’s Defence Adviser and Chief of staff of the army respectively. Since the beginning of the protests in Algeria in 2019, the army has played a key role in proceedings, and it has become an undeniable fact that in post-independence Algeria, as in Sudan, civil-military relations are strongly linked, and the trajectory of the current uprisings may well be decided by this link.
Background on 2011 Protests
In 2011, Algerians were in the streets to protest against the government and the increasing price of commodities. They wanted the departure of the government and the radical change of the political system. The people’s outrage was mainly centred around the country’s economy. The deterioration of living conditions was deemed to be a product of the political class’ corrupt ways. This economic strife pushed people to reconsider of the entire political system. But a revolution did not materialize for a variety of reasons. Since the 1980s, the non-stop violence in the country left a traumatised population behind. A police state is linked to this violence, and the government used to “buy the social peace” through social benefits. Such financial efforts multiplied in 2011 to alleviate this discontent. This went hand in hand with increasing the police force’s salaries. Along with other benefits granted, these financial measures helped to avoid the uprising. However, the government was unable to repeat these measures during the 2019 uprisings, mainly because of a lack of government funding caused by the 2014 fall in oil prices.
In the same context, demonstrations began in 2011 in Khartoum against former President Omar El-Bashir. This was the beginning of several waves of demonstrations, first by students from different universities, then against the increased cost of living in the entire country in 2012 and 2013. The Sudanese authorities responded harshly to protests, arresting thousands of demonstrators and using violent measures to repress the civil discontent. Even if 2011 protests had left indelible scars among the society, especially the opponents of El-Bashir who were most affected by the repression, eight years later, the government once again faced protests on a massive scale, as the economic situation still had not improved and the government had lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Aside from the political problems of the authoritarian, militarised regimes in Algeria and Sudan which have agitated civilians, both states have faced economic strife. Neither country is poor, and yet both suffered from an unequal distribution of wealth and a dependence on oil revenues, and hence their fragility came to light after the sharp fall in oil prices of 2014. In Algeria, oil represents 95% of exports and 60% of tax revenue. Oil revenue has decreased from $20 billion in 2013 to $7 billion in 2017. Sudan lost 75% of its natural oil reserves following the secession of the South, and has faced a huge fall income levels since 2011. Corruption and public debt have complicated the economic situation in both countries. The 2013 unemployment rate was 19.6% in Sudan and 12.3% in Algeria, and public debt remained very high in Khartoum and represented 127.6% of the GDP in 2017. Despite these numbers, the GDP remains relatively high, 178 billion dollars for Algeria (2019) and 177 billion for Sudan (2017), but both suffer from unequal distribution of wealth. In Algeria, 10% of the population own 80% of wealth. The Sudanese economic situation is the more alarming one as the agricultural sector still represents 53.2% of economic activity, and half of the population lives under the poverty line. Economically and socially speaking, the two situations are selectively comparable, and both Sudanese and Algerians seem ready to re-engage in a process of deep change.
The New Wave of Protests
In 2018, former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour and writer Yasmina Khadra issued an open letter to Bouteflika. This letter was signed by 13 Algerian intellectuals and was a plea to the President not to pursue a fifth mandate. “Algeria needs political and institutional reforms of wider scope…this task can only be carried out by a trans-partisan movement backed by a large majority of the population”.
Evidently, their feelings were shared by the Sudanese population, as at the beginning of 2019, protests began with the submission of the candidacy by still-President at the time Bouteflika when serious questions about his health and capacity to rule the country were posed. On March 8, more than one million people peacefully demonstrated in the streets of Algiers against the 82-year-old president’s plan to stay for a fifth term.
As a result of the scars left on the Algerian people from the war for independence and the “Black Decade”, non-violence was promoted in demonstrations. This can explain why protesters talk about the “joyful revolution”, characterized by its non-violence and the smile of Algerians. Furthermore, for the first time, the government and the army did not repress all demonstrations, and seemed to be disoriented by the grassroots movement and this new type of protest. While the 2011 protests were characterized by waves of violence, 2019’s demonstrations were labelled as the “revolution of smiles”, and this attitude change could prove to be a turning point in Algerian political history.
In contrast to the 2011 protests, which mainly concerned the economic strife of the lower classes, the 2019 movement is a movement that involves people from every social class. They are protesting for a radical transformation of the system. 70% of the Algerian population is under the age of 30, and is visibly dissatisfied with the long-standing gerontocracy that has ruled Algeria in recent history.
In Sudan, the recent protests were initially purely economic, and were related to increases in the price of bread and a scarcity of cash available from ATMs. In a society facing poverty and unemployment, the rise in price of such a basic necessity proved to be the tipping point for the Sudanese people. Protests evolved and started to denounce the whole system, as well as the president himself. It is the exact opposite of the “revolution of smiles” in Algeria. Although protests started peacefully, a military crackdown which started on June 3rd has led to over 100 reported deaths since its start, whereas the Algerian protests have caused far fewer casualties, as two deaths have been reported.
Current State of Political Islam
With regards to religion, the 2019 protests in Algeria have represented a shift in perspective. There is now a clear separation of the political and religious sphere in Algeria. The previous links between the Islamist factions and the government has led to a loss of political credibility, and this change has been made very clear. Whilst “Islam is the solution” was one of the slogans during the civil war of the 1990s, it is the distinct lack of Islamist slogans that has been noted by many analysts of the 2019 protests. According to Algerians, Islamists and the current political class belong to the same system: the one that they want to abolish. Violence characterized both the current regime and the Islamist movement in Algeria, which is why protests are heading in the opposite direction: towards a pacifist and secular society.
Sudanese politics is more Islamist-oriented as a result of wider religious influence across society. The protests are leaning towards a new system in which religion can have its place, and are mainly focussed on the economic situation rather than the lack of secularism within the state. Socially speaking, what is more striking in the Sudanese protests is women’s involvement. On March 8th, International Women’s Day, Sudanese women played a particularly noticeable role in the anti-Bashir protests. Since the beginning of the struggles, women have been on the frontlines of demonstrations, and many are calling a female protester, Alaa Salah, the ‘face of the revolution’, after a photograph of her leading the protests from on top of a car went viral.
Youth and Social Media
In Algeria, the ambition to change the system with peaceful protests, intellectual criticism and satire is testimony to a new national consciousness. There is no doubt that the Algerian protests have been influenced by the success of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, as social media has connected Algerians to support from people across the region, and from the Algerian diaspora in France. Social media has been key to domestic mobilization, as the first general strike since the independence of the country was declared on Facebook on the 10th of March, and since then, protesters have used online tools to communicate and organize demonstrations. In contrast, Sudan’s low adult literacy rate of 26.83% has limited the use of social media in the protests, and has also limited domestic journalism on the topic, which in turn has negatively impacted the international coverage of the situation.
The dissemination of information contributes to the evolution and the progress of political claims. In Algeria, protests started as a response to Bouteflika’s fifth mandate, and as demonstrations developed and the discussion online advanced, demands became more politically precise and relevant. Real democratic transition, a new form of political governance, and reforms to modernize the country became the focus of the rebellion. The leaders of this movement in Algeria are the youth who face a 26% unemployment rate and lack of professional perspective in their own country. Corruption has also become a key point of protests in both Algeria and Sudan. Despite both countries having significant oil reserves, neither Sudanese nor Algerian citizens have felt the benefit of the state’s export revenues. Sudan is ranked 172nd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, and Algeria ranks 105th.
Out Goes the President, In Comes the Army?
In response to growing protests, President Bouteflika renounced a fifth mandate on 11th of March while in Sudan, the military announced that President Omar al-Bashir had been overthrown on 11th April. Whilst these announcements were significant, they did not stop the protests, as people see the departure of the president as just the first step to radically changing the whole system, and fear that the power vacuum will be filled by figures from the old regime.
One of the most significant turning points in the development of the situation in Algeria was the political position of the army. The army had been the guard of Bouteflika’s rule since 1999, and yet Bouteflika’s multiple attempts to adjust the military’s political influence later in his rule led to a reversal of this situation. Senior military officers have distanced themselves from Bouteflika. General Ahmed Gaid Salah supported the protesters by saying that demonstrations “had been marked by the deeds of noble aims and pure intentions, through which the Algerian people have clearly expressed its values and principles of sincere and dedicated work to Allah and the Motherland”. Similarly, Moad Bouchared, the leader of Algeria’s leading party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), said that “FLN fully supports the popular protest movement”. However, now that Bouteflika has been removed and the army has become the most significant player in Algerian politics, Gaid Salah has stated that protesters who oppose the military are “enemies of Algeria”, in an attempt to consolidate military control of the state.
Sudan has also witnessed a similar shift in the army’s role, as the military has formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC) which currently controls the country, and is led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. The Sudanese people have shown that they are aware of the military’s power, after gathering outside of al-Qiyada, the Sudanese military headquarters on April 6th to demand the deposition of Bouteflika. Despite this acknowledgement of the military’s power, the Sudanese people continue to try to form a new government of their own terms. Civilian protest organisers have come together under the umbrella group Alliance for Freedom and Change and have been in talks with the TMC. The talks led to an agreement that there would be a three year transitionary period before the introduction of a civilian government. However, at the beginning of June the military announced that the agreement would not be upheld, and that there would be elections after nine months. Negotiations with the protesters has ceased and a violent military crackdown has followed. The ex-Janjaweed, renamed the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohammed Hamdan Dogolo, Vice President of the military transition council, have been widely condemned for attacks and violent repression of demonstrations. As mentioned earlier, the death toll has reached over 100, and Sudanese civilians have also reported a high number of rapes and beatings.
Just as in the Arab Spring of 2011, the revolutionary movements in both Sudan and Algeria are at risk of being squashed by the military, and the path to democracy is once again proving to be fraught with danger.
What Will the Future Hold?
Algerians and Sudanese no longer identify themselves with the regime. So, the question is about the future and the shape of a new political class which suits the expectation of the people and is not related to the current government. What is at stake is not only a replacement of an old figurehead but radical reforms. The ruling figures who were the initial source of discontent have been ousted, but now broader targets of democracy have been set.
The challenge is transforming a gerontocracy with heavy army influence into a democratic and modern system. Today, whilst both movements are led by young people, it is a mix of all ages and classes that are united in demanding the abolition of totalitarian authority. A profound desire of change has been proven, but the lack of structure and leaders amongst the protesters is proving to be problematic. Weekly demonstrations have not led to the organization of structured opposition capable of presenting a real alternative to the existing elite.
The question henceforth is about the future of those countries. Does this situation lead to more rights and relative stability like in Tunisia, or to tragic instability, as was the case in Syria? Will democracy take root, or is the army’s grip on power too strong? Some have raised fears about a similar trajectory as Egypt and its current President el-Sisi. Indeed, it is these born-again autocracies who are supportive of the military regime in Sudan, as analysts say that Egypt’s interests in Sudan would be threatened by a new democracy.
Once again, the states’ power structures are unwilling to relinquish their control, and without a well-organised, widely-supported alternative governing body, protesters are at risk of having their demands ignored completely, and perhaps even having them oppressed violently, as has become the case in Sudan. Whilst the possibility of better organized opposition groups emerging exists, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt, there is little evidence to suggest that either the Sudanese or Algerian military leadership could be threatened by such a group.
Sudan and Algeria are shedding light on two different revolutionary processes. Algeria is at a stagnant impasse with the Algerian army tolerating protests whilst the regime has delayed elections for a new President, in a move that extends the rule of Bouteflika’s old allies. Looking at Sudan, military forces have already played their card, and it seems that they will crush the protests through violence and look to impose a government that suits their own interests. The army has always, in both Algeria and Sudan, been the guard and tool of the system, and going forward, the key variable to watch will be the junta and military elites during this “transition”. The situation has reached a crucial point, and what happens next will have deep implications on the region’s future.
Even if both situations were similar at first sight, the violent turn Sudan has taken highlights how complex an uprising can be and challenges the idea that all Arab protests can be seen in the same light. Whilst more than half of the countries of the MENA region have faced major protests against undemocratic leadership since 2011, the region has largely remained under the control of authoritarian leadership and the views of civilians have continued to be undermined. In reality, the Arab Spring never stopped, it’s a continuum. As the movement’s goals were never fully realised, the Spring shall rise again in different forms across the Middle East. How it will shape the region in the coming years remains to be seen.
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Additional research and editing were done by Mr. Henry Henderson.