In Sudan and Algeria, echoes of 'Arab Spring' don't mean democracy has arrived
WASHINGTON – The headlines out of Sudan and Algeria this week look for all the world like tales of people power prevailing after months of protests against autocratic rulers.
In both countries, the military have pushed out long-serving leaders whose actions sparked peaceful but unyielding protests, echoing the Arab Spring upheavals of 2011. That should spell success for the protesters and it does.
But a closer look shows that the power structures behind the autocrats learned as much as protesters did from the mass demonstrations that were the hallmark of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and other nations.
Of the latest revolts, the more attention-grabbing exit is the military coup that removed President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, who ruled Africa’s third-largest country for three decades after taking power in a bloodless coup in 1989.
Sudanese protesters took to the streets for four months after rising bread prices galvanized anger over raging unemployment and increasing repression by Bashir, who has avoided arrest under an International Criminal Court war crimes indictment for a decade.
In Algeria, ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned under military pressure, ending 20 years in office in which power accrued to a tight, corrupt circle around him known as “The System.”
Although never really accustomed to democracy since the military has usually had the final say over matters political since independence from France in 1962, Algerians erupted into action after Bouteflika in February announced plans to run for a fifth term. This despite the fact he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013 and has not spoken to the public in seven years.
In both cases, senior military men who come from the same power and patronage networks pushed them out, appearing to acknowledge the demands of peaceful street protesters who rallied daily for months for changes.
It would be a mistake to think that democracy or even a real changing of the guard is close on the heels of either Bashir or Bouteflika’s exits, at least until proven otherwise.
The Arab Spring produced similar resignations and leadership changes, and demonstrated the power that people on the streets can wield against autocratic or corrupt regimes. Yet many of the countries have ended up in chaos or with a new set of autocrats.
Often, a leader’s name is shorthand for a political system of patronage and power that spreads across institutions from the military to the bureaucracy to business.
Those networks, especially in nations without strong rule of law, are rooted like tree trunks – built to last and hard to remove. Even more so, they are self-preserving.
That’s why Sudanese protesters say they were not fooled by Bashir’s ouster by a military man who sat in his inner circle. The military council in charge has pledged to have a transitional military rule for no more than two years, and less if there is no tumult.
“The people do not want a transitional military council. Change will not happen with Bashir’s entire regime hoodwinking Sudanese civilians through a military coup. We want a civilian council to head the transition,” tweeted Alaa Salah, a protest leader with a highly polished social media presence.
Even though Bashir is gone, the protests remain.
Although Algeria has promised to hold free elections in 90 days, protesters are wary that they will produce real change and remove all vestiges of the ruling clique that has dominated the body politic for decades.
The election set for July 4th will tell that tale definitively for Algeria. Sudan’s story will take longer to play out.
There is no doubt that the militaries in both countries reacted to the citizens to preserve order and themselves, a remarkable fact since both countries have a history of violent repression where the gun ruled supreme over people.
The best way to look at both is not in absolutes, but rather in increments.
Should the populations of Algeria and Sudan end up better off than they were before, it’s a win for democracy writ large – no matter what form the new body politic takes.
* Bryson Hull is the senior manager for business intelligence at Synoptos, a Washington, D.C.-based media monitoring and intelligence company.
** He spent 17 years in journalism, reporting on politics, business and wars in nearly 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and North America. He has also taught journalism and public speaking at Loyola University-Chicago.