Last December, eight years after Bouazizi’s bold gesture, demand for better political and socio-economic conditions sparked a new wave of demonstrations and protests in Algeria and Sudan.
Today as it was then, frustration due to unemployment, lack of opportunities for young people, economic strain, corrupt and oppressive governments and the desire for freedoms are the main drivers of the uprisings. While their causes are clear, the effects remain to be seen. Some consider it a continuation of the 2011 uprisings or even a budding Arab Spring 2.0, others claim that the current insurrections are doomed to fail as those in 2011.
Algerians and Sudanese have learned their lesson and do not want to share the fate of so many of their neighbours – replacing one autocrat for another. The main question is whether military power will allow a transition towards a genuinely civilian government. Indeed, military and political elites who have the most to lose from change are threatened by this possibility.
During the Arab Spring, South Sudan seceded from Sudan after over four decades of civil war, after which Sudan lost billions of dollars in oil revenues. Attempting to tackle the economic crisis, the government announced an austerity plan in 2012. However, almost half of Sudan’s population (approximately 20 million) currently lives below the poverty line, their currency has continuously lost value (1 Sudanese Pound is worth €0.019 as of May 5, 2019) and inflation has been skyrocketing (around 40 percent by May 2019) forcing the country to seek international aid.
The tipping point occurred last December, when Omar al-Bashir’s government announced a bread price increase from one to three Sudanese pounds. As a consequence of this prolonged crisis, people took to the streets to demand the arrest of al-Bashir, which was obtained in April 2019. He was replaced by a two-year military regime headed by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdelrahman, who promises a civilian government after this transition period.
In Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika served as President from 1999 until April 2019. Despite having retired from public life in 2014 due to health issues, he announced he would seek a fifth term in 2019. This was the last straw in Algeria; after the announcement full-scale grassroots uprisings were launched. People are still fighting for better social and economic conditions and against government corruption. However, the Algerian president has been replaced by an interim president with a military background, Abdelkader Bensalah, until new elections are held this July.
While the time is not yet ripe to know whether Algerians and Sudanese will share the fate of their neighbours, one thing is certain: it is not the most powerful or the most intelligent who survive, but those who adapt to change. In this sense, the Arab region is a unique case of unwillingness to initiate a transition towards ideals of democracy and modernity.
The sources of this Arab exceptionalism, which does not allow for functional region- building and is the primary source of instability, are manifold. Institutions and governance across the region are problematic: they lack democratic values, accountability to their people and in some instances, legitimacy in failed or praetorian states. The absence of strong civil societies, a private sector and insufficient regional trade integration are also main obstacles.
Moreover, several security concerns exist in the region. Many territories are affected by Islamic terrorism and/or wars in addition to the threat of nuclear proliferation being relatively high. The problem with change, however, is that it requires renouncing valued norms, such as lifestyles and ideals that affect the group identity.
Change can be painful and difficult. Yet failing to adapt is costly because continuous economic and military pressures make it impossible to live in isolation.
The future of these protests and of any positive development in the Arab world depends on whether its people are ready to embrace change. Currently, this remains doubtful. The 2011 Arab Spring did bring change, just not the positive change people were seeking. Rather than giving birth to democratic awakening, it paved the way for new autocratic leaders, wars and further divisions.
There are 22 Arab states. The inability of their governments to secure their borders and to project authority over their territories and people have cleared the way for rebel groups, wars and humanitarian crises.
Egypt and Bahrain have experienced massive protests, leading to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and authoritarian government and the rise to power of an even worse strongman, Fatah al-Sisi, and to massive repression by Saudi Arabia respectively. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar also crushed the feeble dissent expressed at home.
Lebanon, seldom stable, had already experienced its traumatic civil war when public outcry spread widely across the Middle East and North Africa and consequently, little came out of the protests in Martyrs’ Square. Apart from Tunisia–the country that came closest to democracy–the upheavals ended in new autocratic or military regimes and bloodshed. Yet, even though Ben Ali’s corrupt government was toppled, the Tunisian economic crisis has shown no signs of significant recovery nor has corruption ceased to exist.
Only time will tell whether this new resistance can be translated into a democratic transition, as uncertainty regarding the Army’s willingness to hand over power to the people in both countries remains high. The armies are also supported by many Arab countries, especially the Gulf monarchies, who fear that achieving democracy will destabilise their own societies and therefore aim to maintain autocratic structures at all costs.
Democratic transitions are possible but require great compromise and rather than a radical change, they more often produce limited change, as seen in the Tunisian experience. While the seeds of change have been planted, it remains to be seen whether they will blossom into concrete outcomes.