Algeria, Sudan, and a New Kind of Arab Spring
On April 3, Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, resigned after the military exhorted him to step down. A week later, President Omar Al-Bashir was ousted in Sudan through a military coup. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took over the streets of Algiers, Atbara, and Khartoum over these past few months demanding that the autocratic leaders resign. Amongst the many chants and slogans, one particular chant in arabic stood out and seized the attention of many in the international community: “ash-shab yurid isqat an nizam,” which translates to “the people want to bring down the regime,” a chant that was taken up by many protesters throughout North Africa and the Middle East during the Arabs Spring in 2011. Numerous articles have been written about what this could mean for North Africa, and many are regarding this as the second wave of the Arab Spring. However, such a hasty comparison is risky. The protests in Algeria and Sudan are not only different from the struggle mutually felt by protestors in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, but the comparison intimates that these protests will end a similarly horrific fashion, thus denigrating the grievances of the protestors by conflating them with the 2011 protests.
The protests in Sudan began months ago due to a bread shortage. The price of bread increased three times from its initial value by 70%. The complaints then escalated to include the low salaries, high unemployment, and increased shortages of jobs. This is especially not good for a country like Sudan that is grappling with a growing youth population that is hungry for jobs. Their grievances did not stop at the economic crisis. As the protests heightened, grievances immediately shifted to condemn the corruption within the government, the embezzlement of money, and the arbitrary imprisonment of citizens. This protest marked the largest in the history of Sudan since its independence in 1956.
Everything changed when the military turned its back on the ruling party and began protecting the anti-government protesters. The military deployed troops around the Defense Ministry in Khartoum and followed to oust al-Bashir, who they detained along with the vice president. The military then implemented its own government that would be led by the Defense Minister, Awan Ibn Awuf. The defense minister announced that the military council will take control and rule Sudan for the coming two years before any democratic elections could be held and proposed to suspend the military until then. However, the people of Sudan are well too familiar with this misleading rhetoric; they know that the military is not fit to run the their affairs and that their job is to maintain security of their nation, which is precisely the reason why they continued to protest. Because the protests against Awuf had intensified, he stepped down shortly after and handed power over to another military general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Although this move appears counterproductive and has been similarly lambasted, the people feel that al-Burhan will be an easier leader to work with who and who can hopefully set the terms for a smoother transition to a democratic, civilian government. Nonetheless, this has mollified the protests and the Sudanese people continue to march the streets and display their grievances until a civilian government is instituted.
After months of protests in Algeria, President Bouteflika resigned after the military joined the protesters to demand that he step down. However, his resignation has not done much to appease the demands of the protestors who continue to call for an unmitigated overhaul of the entire system, including the significant power the military holds. Like al-Bashir, Bouteflika’s government has been accused of corruption and political repression. Additionally, his stroke in 2013, which impaired his ability to appear in public for a couple of years, gave rise to mounting suspicions among Algerians who wondered who was really running their government. Unlike Sudan, Algeria is not entirely autocratic, which means there is space for Algerians to express their disenchantments with the ruling party. However, Algeria struggled with rising unemployment and inflation, not to mention a high youth population that amounts to 70% of all Algerians, very much like Sudan. The International Monetary Fund estimated Algeria’s deficit to be 9% of its GDP, which is worse compared to the likes of some Arab Spring countries in 2011.
Although the protests during the Arab Spring were also directed towards the economic stagnation and political repression, these reactionary movements were primarily led by conservative and Islamist groups against secular, Pan-Arab, nationalist, and military regimes. As is already evident, the Arab Spring, as it was, resulted in horrific conditions (with the exception of Tunisia). The breakout of three civil wars took many lives and destabilized the regions that inexorably allowed for jihadists to seize considerable control over large swathes of land. Many uncertainties arose as to how these vasts protests would result, and many of the desired changes did not actually materialize. Although there is great uncertainty to what might result for Sudan and Algeria, we should not be so rash such as to make ill thought-out conjectures by comparing these events to those of 2011. Each are different events which have taken place eight years apart. And, though it is true that the 2019 events might carry residual effects from the events in 2011, it does not mean they are the same. One protestor in Algeria put it succinctly when he said, “People don’t want the same thing to happen that happened in other Arab Spring countries.” Right now, the hope for a different path forward remains very much alive.