Algeria and Sudan carry the Arab Spring torch

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

Far from being dead and buried, the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring is being rekindled in two countries that were largely left out last time round.

Following Egypt’s military coup in 2013, there were many gleeful obituaries concerning the Arab Spring – the movement that saw millions protest against their long-time authoritarian rulers. Now though, slogans that once rattled well-entrenched regimes are again sounding loud and clear across the Middle East.

Though Algeria and Sudan were largely left out of the initial phase of the Arab Spring, which began in 2011, hundreds of thousands of civilians from both countries have taken to the streets over the past months, chanting ‘we want to bring down the regime’.

On 22 February, Algerians poured onto the streets to stop Abdelaziz Bouteflika from running for a fifth presidential term after 20 years in office. Despite confusion and reluctance from then 81-year-old Bouteflika and his regime supporters, Algerians forced a resignation letter from the ailing President. Street celebrations ensued.

In Sudan, protesters had flooded the streets two months earlier, but were met with brutal force. After nearly four months of protests, with at least 60 people dead and dozens injured, the military announced they were forcing out Omar Al Bashir, the 75-year-old President, in April. A transitional military council was formed to run the African nation.

The Sudanese protestors complained of poor living conditions, skyrocketing prices and lack of democracy after 30 years under the authoritarian rule of Al Bashir, an army general who took office in 1989.

The anti-Bashir sentiment was so strong that protests began in the city of Atbara – traditionally a stronghold of Bashir – after school students took to the streets to protest against a hike in bread and fuel prices.

Protests are now being led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, which, as a labour union, is one of the least political groupings in the country. That in itself has pre-empted attempts to label the protesters as ‘foreign agents’, ‘terrorist sympathisers’ or ‘rebel groups’ – all labels that often preceded and later justified a brutal clampdown.

Reaction in neighbouring Arab countries was different from the wave of 2011 to 2012. Instead of following the news on Aljazeera, many took to their social media for updates, as well as volunteering advice and tips.

On one side, there were young democrats and activists urging both the Sudanese and the Algerians not to trust the military. ‘Don’t repeat our mistake,’ was one hashtag. The activists pointed to how the top brass in Egypt, the largest Arab country in terms of population, initially sided with the protests only to re-seize power by force two years later and put thousands of them behind bars. They also pointed to how the armed forces in Syria largely backed Bashar Al Assad and went on to solicit support from foreign powers Iran and Russia after accusing protestors of being ‘foreign agents’.

There were warnings against interference from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, which largely succeeded in steering the Arab Spring towards reproducing allies in power.

There was also the status-quo camp; their main, subtly threatening tip being that protests and change will eventually lead to chaos, destruction and unrest.

Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, representing a robust anti-democratic axis in the region, work behind the scenes to discourage the military in both nations from conceding to civilians. Both the Saudis and the Emaratis have publicly pledged billions of dollars in aid to Sudan.

Entrenched Arab regimes, particularly in the Gulf, prefer failed uprisings that reproduce the same regimes to democratic civilian rule that risks rekindling ambitions of freedom inside their own borders. For these and other reasons, the initial phase of the Arab Spring lacked meaningful results everywhere except Tunisia. In Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, attempts at freedom have resulted in tragic consequences.

‘The main danger for Algeria now is coming from the Middle East and the Gulf,’ says Algerian journalist Akram Belkaid. ‘Some countries, some monarchies, are counter-revolutionary. They do not want to see Algeria become a democracy or a symbol of democracy. They do not want to have a contagion to other Arab countries.’

The tactic to scare activists in Algeria and Sudan from continuing their public uproar has so far foundered. Algerians still take to the streets on a weekly basis in a bid to wrangle back power from the military without provoking a lethal crackdown. Many in Algeria say they want to uproot the corrupt regime that has been running a nation of 42 million people since it gained independence from France in 1962.

In Sudan, the picture is similar. Despite Bashir’s removal, the military are still in charge, but with hundreds of thousands still protesting daily and a major sit-in continuing outside the Defence Ministry’s headquarters.

Some countries, some monarchies, are counter-revolutionary. They do not want to see Algeria become a symbol of democracy

Akram Belkaid
Algerian journalist

Both Sudanese and Algerian activists are threatening to escalate their demonstrations if the military in both countries do not eventually hand over power to civilian transitional governments.

Algeria will see presidential elections in July, called for by the military but with the same system of bureaucrats overseeing the process. Protesters want a longer transition better to prepare and reform the system before going to the ballots. The Sudanese want the military totally out of power.

At the time of writing, a stalemate is in place between the military and the protestors in both countries.

‘What happened in 2011 is not finished yet,’ Belkaid says. ‘This is the second wave of what we called at that time the Arab Spring.’

Unlike in Egypt and Syria, the military in both Algeria and Sudan have not yet resorted to full force against the pro-democracy movement, despite a history of violent internal crackdowns. But sporadic use of teargas, batons, whips and even live ammunition indicate that possibility may be around the corner.

The protestors realise how regime violence was readily used against other Arab activists. Their counter-approach is to keep the desire for freedom alive as they study their next move and try to avert a much-feared bloody armed confrontation.

It’s not clear which strategy will pay off. But as with Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, it takes only one armed strongman to throw an entire country into turmoil. Until the endgame starts, the protests in Algeria and Sudan have made one thing clear: this generation genuinely demands ‘freedom and change’. The Arab Spring is far from dead.

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at emad.mekay@int-bar.org