Sometimes spring comes late — and what looks like spring might be a cruel illusion.
It has been eight years since the Arab Spring raised hopes of democratic transformation across the Middle East. The results have been discouraging. Syria has endured unimaginable suffering, but Bashir Assad seems secure. Egypt is under the harsh hand of Abdel Fattah Sisi. Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe, and in Libya a militia general sent his forces last week to attack the U.N.-backed government. Tunisia still is trying to make it work.
So it’s surprising, and inspiring, to see a late bloom of the Arab Spring in Algeria and Sudan, where massive peaceful protests have brought down strongmen this month.
History suggests the established powers probably can find a way to stay mostly, if not totally, in control. Nevertheless, at a time when representative government is foundering in many places, the actions of protesters in Sudan and Algeria are a reminder that there are plenty of people who know very well what they’re missing, yearn for it, and are willing to risk their lives for it.
You can also bet that authoritarian leaders in the region and around the world are paying attention. If they’ve assumed, like Omar Al Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, that they could stay in power indefinitely by repressing and manipulating their citizens, they might think again. Recall that the Arab Spring started with police abuse of a lone provincial street vendor in Tunisia.
Before the Sudanese military removed him from office last Thursday, Bashir had been in power for 30 years. He has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, part of a pattern of major human rights abuses. The economy is beset by cronyism, mismanagement and the loss of most of Sudan’s oil revenue with the secession of South Sudan in 2011. According to the Brookings Institution, inflation is about 70 percent annually. Three-quarters of the national budget goes to the military and salaries for senior officials; 7 percent for health care.
The need to cut subsidies led Bashir’s government to triple the price of bread, which sparked the protest movement in December. But from the start, leaders made clear that the protests were about much more than the price of bread.
Unions, professionals and particularly women have been in the forefront of the protests, including Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student. A photo of her addressing a crowd quickly became the iconic image of the movement.
Experts say that 57 years later, Algeria still is run by veterans of the war that resulted in independence from France. They, too, have shown no qualms about shedding blood. Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have died in a conflict with Islamic insurgents, which started in 1992 after the army canceled elections Islamists were considered likely to win.
Bouteflika became president in 1999 after the insurgency was largely defeated. He now is 82 years old and so frail he is barely able to walk or talk; his last known public address was five years ago. But the power structure seemed unable to move on, so Bouteflika was preparing to run for a fifth term this spring. That paralysis also has stymied much-needed economic reforms, according to the International Crisis Group.
The prospect of more of the same galvanized the protests, which resulted in Bouteflika’s resignation April 1.
How this ends, no one knows. In Algeria, power transferred to the speaker of the upper house of Parliament, who called elections for July. In Sudan, the army announced a two-year transition to civilian rule. Neither was good enough for protesters, who are keeping up the pressure. The defense minister who took over for Bashir lasted little more than a day before he was out too, possibly as the result of a power struggle within the military between factions with loyalties to different foreign patrons.
These protests seem better organized than the spontaneous uprisings of eight years ago, according to some analysts. Established professionals are involved, they have remained peaceful, rebuffed efforts to divide them and they have gotten more sophisticated about the use of social media. Algeria has some well-established civil society groups already providing concrete ideas on how to manage a transition, Jessica Northey, an Algeria expert in Britain, told Al-Monitor.
The power structure in both countries appears to have been caught flat-footed, but retains huge resources. While they have not crushed the protests, history shows how ruthless they can be. A crackdown or violence between competing factions in the power structure may exacerbate other problems, driving some opponents into the arms of Islamic militants and others to try to emigrate to Europe.
Protesters have numbers, passion – and right — on their side. They could use strong signs of foreign support, and probably a lot of luck. Still, that’s often not enough. But doing nothing means nothing changes. In an era of strongmen, it’s good to see people in unexpected places pushing back.