From Algeria to Sudan, a New Lease of Life for Arab Springs

What is happening in Sudan and Algeria is not a repetition of Arab springs, but a wave that learns from the lessons and mistakes of the past.

Algerian protesters hold a banner reading “no military state, no mercenaries” as they demonstrate in the capital Algiers on June 7, 2019
Ryad Kramdi/AFP

The protests in Algeria and Sudan resume the Arab Spring, which was temporarily halted in 2012-13 by two events—the establishment of a counterrevolutionary axis comprising Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo; and second, the deterioration of some uprisings into civil wars, amplified by the geopolitical polarization of the region as supported by the US, Israel, Iran, and Russia.

However, the Algerian and Sudanese uprisings of 2019 do not merely repeat the Arab Spring, but rather extend and deepen it. They show that the sociology of popular resistance has changed. These popular fronts are not only the product of youth movements, but also stem from cross-class social foundations. Women also play a markedly more central role. These new rebellious actors have learned critical lessons from 2011. They know that simply toppling presidents is no longer enough. Now, they must mobilize against entire systems of governance that implicate the military, bureaucracy, and conservative factions embedded within the state. They also do not limit themselves to the same public spaces; they are more diffuse.

The army, a central but weakened actress

At the same time, the Algerian and Sudanese regimes, which feature the army as their pivotal actors, also understand the new rules. Both revolutions were bound to reach an initial impasse, in which social forces demand complete political transformation, but are met by resistant autocracies whose best strategy is to create misdirection and sow fear.

The Algerian and Sudanese uprisings therefore embody a less romantic version of the revolutionary spirit evoked by the original Arab Spring. The fates of these confrontations between regimes and opposition are being determined not by the dreams and ambitions of protesters alone, but rather the structural parameters that define the institutional framework, historical conditions, and organizational configurations of each country. Much as the development of Tunisian state and society has been typified by strong civic associations and a culture of constitutionalism, the character of Algerian and Sudanese politics has long been defined by the central place of the army. However, these two cases are also not identical, and within their differences lays an explanation for their increasingly divergent outcomes.

The keepers of the Algerian State

In Algeria, the military has ruled the country behind a civilian façade since 1965. It is the backbone of state power. However, it is not aristocratic as in Egypt, because its origins lay in anti-colonial struggle in which popular legitimation was gained by supporting national liberation. This makes the Algerian military unitary, cohesive, and professionalized. It is less of a social caste and more of a functional organization. It has pretorian instincts, in which generals see themselves as guardians of the state and therefore above reproach. In concert with the ruling FLN party, and through its security services, the army has acted to topple presidents, call for elections, and dictate the rhythms of civilian politics. While many generals may be corrupt, the Algerian military has no autonomous business interests unlike in Egypt, although it also escapes civilian oversight into its internal expenditures.

In the Algerian context, therefore, the army has a unique position. It presents itself as both national and patriotic, symbolizing the Algerian people’s collective identity while also protecting the security of the state. Yet it seldom ruled or even killed directly, preferring instead to use the apparatus of the state and its institutional appendages to inflict violence. For instance, in the 1990s, it fought the civil war against Islamists, backing the justification of national security over religious extremism. During that conflict, it did not wage conventional battles so much as encourage anti-Islamist militias and employ paramilitary death squads. This renders it reluctant to shoot directly upon protesters, unlike Egypt.

The military far from power

However, one major change occurred with the Bouteflika era: the civilian regime recalibrated state institutions to shift power away from the military. Bouteflika severed the security services from the army, implanting loyalists within them while also creating a new class of oligarchic cronies through petrodollars. In this way, the Algerian model of autocracy under Bouteflika fused the co-optation tactics of the Moroccan Makhzen with the rentier distributional politics of the Gulf kingdoms—two systems he understood very well.

At the same time, the prevailing elites of the FLN and legal opposition parties were so drawn into this system of regime maintenance that they lost all credibility amongst the public, which today perceives them as puppets of the state. This is common to most Arab countries. Algerian society, however, confronts another complication. It has suffered violent dispossessions that create an even greater sense of resentment against a state no longer able or willing to provide economic opportunities and political voice. Those dispossessions have been generational, ranging from the war of independence to the 1980s economic turmoil, and to the 1990s civil war and the repression of the Kabyle movement in the 2000s. The imperative of state security during all these episodes eviscerated Algerian civil society, such that few labor unions, student movements, and civic groups could ever be independent of state power.

A bold movement without a leader

This crushing of society plus the institutional shifts undertaken by the Bouteflika presidency results in the unpredictable situation seen today. The popular movement of Algeria is leaderless and emboldened. It embodies the demand for elite exit, in that any intermediary attempting to negotiate with the military or politically capture the public mood is instantly discredited as a stooge of the existing political order. Thus, the movement seeks to make direct demands to the military during this transitional moment. Inversely, this puts the Algerian army in a difficult situation now. It has discarded Bouteflika and arrested many of his cronies to dampen popular contestation, but it also still refuses any political scenario where it does not hold the finality of power given its historical role. At the same time, it is under extreme duress, as it no longer has the old security institutions to carry out directives of social control, and it is also not accustomed to governing so openly without a civilian façade. In an unprecedented way, the military has twice suffered popular rejection, as each presidential election proposed to end the crisis was thoroughly discredited by the public as an insufficient guarantee for future change.

This leaves three scenarios. First, the military can crack down and openly assert its dictatorship as in Egypt, although this is highly unlikely. Second, it can struggle through institutional gridlock, due to the street not backing down without giving the army an honorable exit. Third, it can wait until there is protest fatigue, and propose a hybrid solution for a new political order that may splinter the opposition and help preserve its central place in the system. Yet pressures will mount nonetheless for meaningful change, so the military will only be delaying the inevitable. On its part, the social movement must organize some leadership that can interface with the military in creating such a negotiated pact, which would initially preserve the military’s domain of interests in return for ironclad guarantees of immediate democratic change and deepening reforms.

Chaos in Khartoum

The Sudanese scenario provides a sharp contrast to Algeria in terms of its structural parameters, which makes its recent crackdown and repression more comprehensible. Three major differences stand out.

First, the Sudanese military lacks the patrician status and nationalist credentials of the Algerian armed forces. The Sudanese army has intervened into politics repeatedly since the 1950s, but not out of a uniform interest to protect the nation’s interests. Rather, it was simply one of many political competitors, alongside different parties and ideological currents, seeking to capture public support and control state power.

Second, for that reason, the Sudanese military is not a unified and coherent actor. There are clear divisions within it, resulting in the chaos of the biggest protests in April. During large demonstrations, Sudanese troops clashed with Bashir’s security forces. After Bashir’s deposal, there were numerous internal shuffles as the military council appointed new leaders, dismissed old ones, and restructured its forces.

An active and autonomous civil society

Third, unlike in Algeria, Sudanese civil society and social organizations retained a strong sense of autonomy. This is partly due to the historical legacies of pluralism and party politics in the struggle for power in Sudan, in that different competing streams including Islamism often had to mobilize social forces to legitimate themselves. Thus, while the Sudanese popular movement is enormous, as in Algeria, it also enjoyed clear leadership from professional syndicates and legal associations that helped maintain intense pressure upon the military to commit itself towards democracy.

The Sudanese crackdown was vicious, but also a product of these parameters. The Sudanese uprising appeared more dangerous to the military because of its stronger leadership, autonomous nature, and political cohesion. The Sudanese military was, and is, more fractured and less coherent. That made its hardline elements more likely to turn to the Janjaweed militias to openly attack protesters in order to crush the uprising.

The reaction of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi

Just as both popular movements and authoritarian regimes have learned from the Arab Spring, so too has the counterrevolutionary front in the Arab world changed its strategies. It has not waited for democratic breakthroughs, but rather activated quickly to crush the possibility of regime transitions. In Sudan, the Saudi-led front incited the actions of the Janjaweed in attacking the protest movement. In Algeria, it responded to Bouteflika’s resignation by unleashing Haftar and his military forces in Libya to begin their campaign to take Tripoli.

The goal of this counterrevolutionary push is to create havoc and distort any positive political change in the region that could potentially spread back into autocratic centers.

Yet the stakes are higher today for the counterrevolutionary axis than in the past, for two reasons. First, the Egyptian archetype of restored dictatorship is not diffusing across the region, and indeed requires intense repression simply to survive. Second, the counterrevolutionary axis itself has a fundamental weakness—Riyadh. The Egyptian regime is predictable, being inwardly focused upon domestic stability and repression. The Emirati leadership is strategic, prioritizing long-term economic goals in its subtler interventions. Yet the Saudi leadership under Muhammad bin Salman has proven itself maladroit and clumsy in its exercise of power across the region. Blunt interventions have created geopolitical schisms, diplomatic embarrassment, and humanitarian disasters.

The example of the Hirak in Morocco

The counterrevolutionary front is now in a race against time, and it will stop at nothing to achieve its goal. It no longer aims to create models of authoritarian stability. Rather, it seeks to generalize instability at any cost in order to halt democratic transformations. This partly explains why Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pushing so hard for the US to go to war with Iran. Whereas in the Sudan this strategy may succeed given the fractures in the military, it will most likely falter in Algeria for all the structural parameters described. More generally, it will fail in the Maghrib for several reasons. The counterrevolutionary axis thrives by exploiting political fissures, but in the Maghrib there are no more ideological fissures. Islamism has lost its allure, with many Islamists co-opted and others simply rejected after the disaster of ISIS. The only serious Islamist political alternative is Ennahda in Tunisia. Riyadh’s remaining option is to support Salafism, such as the madkhali movement in Libya. However, this is a self-defeating strategy in the Maghrib because such movements are “legitimatists” and subordinate themselves to the authority of incumbent regimes.

Supporting regional movements will also not yield any success either, as they are not secessionist in character. The Rif Hirak in Morocco, for instance, seeks its rightful place within the nation rather than separating itself from it. Democratic opposition forces in the Maghrib have also not committed the error of embracing populism, which can be another cleavage of conflict. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Maghribi populations are becoming increasingly anti-Saudi, anti-Emirati, and anti-Egyptian in their sentiments.