Recent events in several Arab states have underscored the determination of many citizens in the MENA region to push for democratic change following decades of authoritarian and corrupt leadership. Yet in Algeria, Libya, and Sudan, the citizens now face the possibility of living under military rule depending on the outcome of these countries’ ongoing internal crises which could move in a variety of directions.
Could the first half of 2019 mark the start of another so-called Arab (or at least North African) Spring? Given the blood that has already been spilled in Sudan and the pessimism about transfers of power from armed forces to civilians, there may be good reason to challenge this notion that an “Arab Spring 2.0” erupted this year. Nonetheless, there is a widespread desire for democratic change that similarly brought many young North Africans to the streets eight years ago.
Stolen Revolution in Sudan?
Sudan’s 75-year old former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir resigned on April 11, ending his 30-year presidency. His ouster was largely due to bottom-up pressure that began with anti-government protests across various Sudanese cities in late 2018. Most Sudanese citizens have only experienced life under Bashir’s rule, which started when he ascended to power in an Islamist-backed, Iranian-inspired coup in 1989. The issues that triggered the 2018 demonstrations were like those that fueled the Arab Spring revolts of 2011–rising fuel and bread prices, corruption, inflation, unemployment, and cash shortages.
It is difficult to predict how events will unfold in Khartoum as this fragile transition continues. Yet at least for the time being, Sudan’s political fate rests in the hands of the Transitional Military Council. The Council has started evaluating potential candidates for the role of president, without clarifying the Council’s role in this transition or even the government that will emerge from it. Yet the Council will probably not quietly abandon the scene after it has organized elections and nominated candidates.
The Sudanese people’s desire for democracy faces a considerable risk of being stifled by yet another manifestation of military or authoritarian power.
The Sudanese people’s desire for democracy faces a considerable risk of being stifled by yet another manifestation of military or authoritarian power. The Sudanese Army has already announced it will suspend the Constitution, establishing military rule until at least 2021. Moreover, the usual suspects are becoming increasingly involved, while Sudanese parties, including affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood, try to reach compromises for Constitutional reforms in Parliament through the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), the opposition groups’ umbrella body coalition. Indeed, the foreign meddling has begun.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has promptly backed Sudan’s military “interim” junta while, not coincidentally, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have already promised some USD 3.0 billion in economic aid. For its part, the DFCF has called for civil disobedience, having understood that the generals and colonels will not back down. Indeed, the protests against the financial assistance that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pledged last month highlights how many Sudanese who observed the coup in Egypt six years ago are keen to avoid their northern neighbor’s fate and fear the political ramifications of Khartoum accepting this money from counter-revolutionary powers in the Gulf.
Bashir’s government and its highly authoritarian institutions have left many in the country with a deep sense of mistrust of Sudan’s authorities. Thus, the legacies of Bashir’s three-decade rule will likely continue impacting Sudan’s state and society throughout the future, informing citizens’ perspectives on the need to remove the “Deep State” from power even while several Arab capitals support the Sudanese Army as a custodian of the transition into the post-Bashir period.
Algeria’s former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on April 1. It will likely be the Army which determines who will fill Bouteflika’s vacant post in the long term, regardless of what change tens of thousands of people may demand.
Just as in 1999, the Army has stepped in, naming a pliable figure to fill the void at the El-Mourada presidential palace in Algiers. Backed by Algeria’s army minister, Ahmed Gaid Salah, Senate leader Abdelkader Bensalah will serve as interim president. His role is to lead the country to elections in July 2019. But, as a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle, he represents the fossilized establishment (“Le Pouvoir”) and few experts expect the elections to bring substantive change. Algerians fear that the elections will merely keep the same people and interests in power without bringing any change.
Algerians are demanding solutions to chronic problems – especially economic ones. But, like so many oil and gas producing countries, both within and beyond the Arab world, there is an excessive reliance on a single hydrocarbon resource.
Algerians are demanding solutions to chronic problems – especially economic ones. But, like so many oil and gas producing countries, both within and beyond the Arab world, there is an excessive reliance on a single hydrocarbon resource. The ability to use the oil wealth for the benefit of the masses was, essentially, a major source of legitimacy for successive Algerian governments. The past five years have seen oil prices drop to some of the lowest in decades with many average Algerians’ anger rising steadily.
Bensalah has tried to placate the angry masses by arresting leading figures surrounding Bouteflika, accusing them of corruption. These include intelligence chiefs, leading Algerian businessmen such as Ali Haddad (a member of the former president’s inner circle), Said Bouteflika (the former president’s younger brother, who was his unofficial advisor). But, the crowds, aren’t satisfied. They want the Pouvoir completely dismantled; whereas, they perceive Bensalah and the army are merely applying “cosmetic” changes in order to keep its structure intact. They want the entire Bouteflika “clan” to be arrested or dismissed; especially, the so-called “four B’s.” Although Bouteflika and Tayeb Belaiz, chief of the Constitutional Council, have both resigned, prime minister Noureddine Bedoui continues to occupy his post. The fourth “B” is Bensalah himself.
To be sure, Algerians yearn for significant change that goes far beyond Salah’s anti-corruption “witch-hunt.” Ongoing protests in Algiers and other cities that attract thousands are about sending a message to the ruling establishment that the public demands fundamental change by removing Le Pouvoir from power, not just witnessing another figure from the old guard replace Bouteflika as an official head of state.
Khalifa Haftar’s Fight for Libya
An increasingly democratic North Africa would create problems for Arab autocrats, especially for Egypt’s government. That in no small part explains why al-Sisi has backed General Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli that began on April 4. Haftar leads the Libyan National Army (LNA), which also enjoys the support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia. France too has backed Haftar/LNA while the US administration of Donald Trump appears to be leaning in that direction as well.
Several international players have decided that stability is preferable to legitimacy.
Several international players have decided that stability is preferable to legitimacy. Haftar’s advance began shortly after he met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh on March 27. The Saudi monarch influenced Haftar to march toward Tripoli which fully undermined the UN sponsored Ghadames National Conference, originally scheduled for April 14-16. The conference was supposed to have set the stage for Libyan reconciliation, yet the clashes between Haftar’s forces and their enemies loyal to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) dim any such prospects for reconciliation.
Even President Trump phoned the new Libyan “strongman,” praising his role in fighting terrorists while protecting Libya’s oil resources, without, however, offering a similar courtesy to GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who remains, at least formally, the leader of the Libyan government recognized by Washington. France, for its part, is reviving its former “colonial glory,” deploying special troops throughout the southern Sahara region. Paris also prefers that Haftar gain power and influence. French military advisers have worked with the LNA, offering intelligence and training even if Haftar’s own reliability is questionable.
Looking Forward: Fears, Failings, and Fantasies
Based on how events are unfolding, 2019 is shaping up to be a year that will be remembered for drastic political change in the Maghreb and Sudan. The largescale protests across Algeria and Sudan have jolted these two countries. But no democratic transitions in these countries have completed, let alone consolidated. Algerians and Libyans both fear that Salah and Haftar will become dictators of their countries and govern with undemocratic military regimes that receive support from Arab Gulf states—chiefly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In Algeria and Sudan, the demonstrators who have continued their protests are making it clear to the authorities that they simply do not trust the armies and people in their former presidents’ cliques to permit any democratic transitions to unfold. In contrast to the Egyptian people in 2013 who welcomed the coup that toppled Morsi, those still on the streets of Algeria and Sudan protesting in favor of the authorities handing power to civilians do not see the armed forces as naturally on their side in the political arena.
Egypt’s oppression and democratization-in-reverse since the military takeover six years ago have taught the region many lessons.
Egypt’s oppression and democratization-in-reverse since the military takeover six years ago have taught the region many lessons. One indication manifested itself when protests in Sudan were directed against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with demonstrators accusing them of meddling in Khartoum’s affairs after pledging USD 3 billion to the interim Sudanese government. Perhaps there was a degree of naiveté on the part of Egyptians who saw the Gulf-backed coup of 2013 as an opportunity for a democratic revolution to correct itself, rather than the abrupt end of that revolution. In Sudan, many citizens understand how the army having control over the political process will prevent any democratic transition from unfolding.
It should be no surprise that some Gulf states are extremely worried about how democratic aspirations in North Africa will impact the status quo. Unquestionably, the reforms that are advocated by street demonstrators would fundamentally alter the nature of governance in the wider Arab world. The Gulf states that favor short-term stability over any revolutionary change will naturally see Algeria and Sudan as undergoing delicate transitions that have much potential to spiral into chaotic instability if not managed in a way that enables the army to remain in the driver seat. The most likely way to justify counter-revolutionary foreign policies in North Africa, will be that the Saudi and Emirati leaders will continue to frame the anti-status quo currents in Algeria, Libya, Sudan, and other countries as “terrorists” or “extremists.” The extent to which Abu Dhabi’s rhetoric in defense of Haftar emphasizes fighting terrorism underscores this point.
With many Algerians and Sudanese mobilized and united in their determination to thwart new military regimes from ruling their countries, it appears that they may be on a collision course with the oil-wealthy states of the Gulf that view their democratic aspirations as a threat to the future stability of the Middle East.