World View: Bleak vista for democratic uprisings in Algeria and Sudan
Military regimes will sit out crisis and exploit flaws in populist movements
An Algerian student attends a protest calling for the departure of the Algerian regime in Algiers on April 23rd. Photograph: Mohamed Messara
Sudan and Algeria are living through civil society uprisings against their military regimes, raising hopes and fears of political change in the Arab world. Alongside this street power and democratic revolution we see the threat of a renewed civil war in Libya and a consolidation of reactionary military rule in Egypt.
These coinciding events tell a story about regional politics in the Middle East and Africa. While there are growing popular and regime similarities, the two levels travel in opposite directions. Repeated demonstrations throughout Algeria in favour of regime change invite comparison with the sustained and disciplined sit-in around the military headquarters in Khartoum, as do the negotiations on how their democratic transitions should be organised.
Equally apparent is Egyptian and Saudi Arabia pressure for continued military rule in both states to defend regional political stability and order. In Libya, they support the rebellion by Gen Khalifa Hafter and his attempt to take Tripoli in a proclaimed campaign against Islamic terrorism. The constitutional convention planned across all the political parties for this month has been abandoned.
The African Union has a more universal membership throughout the continent, symbolised by Morocco’s recent decision to rejoin
Hofter is also backed by Russia and the United States, but opposed by Italy and most EU states, as by Turkey and Qatar, pursuing their regional rivalry with the Saudis.
This week the Egyptian military president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi engineered an extension of his rule until 2030. The carefully cultivated fear of change is directed particularly against the Muslim Brotherhood. It appeals to more European governments now.
While commentators talk of a revived Arab Spring, analysts point out how divided the region remains ideologically and politically. Those leading the Algerian and Sudanese rebellions are well aware of the weaknesses that undermined the 2011 revolts. Women and educated youth are to the fore, backed up by urban intelligentsias.
They are determined to embed constitutional norms in the transition, influenced by the successful Tunisian example. Uneven mobilisations in urban and rural Sudan and political fragmentation in Algeria encourage both military regimes to sit out the crisis and exploit weaknesses in the popular ranks.
Oil-rich Algeria is in a stronger economic position than Sudan, which lost its energy resources when South Sudan seceded eight years ago. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, a key factor behind the fighting there. Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth drives its bid for regional hegemony.
The state, military and private elites owning and controlling that wealth throughout the region display more solidarity with each other in defending their interests than do their rebellious opponents. That feeds in turn into extra-regional involvement from Europe and the US.
The Arab regionalism on display here boosts existing authoritarian regimes to protect their sovereignty and control. The Arab League is long on passing resolutions but very short on implementing them. Its most successful co-ordinations have been between Arab interior ministers and intelligence chiefs – strikingly so when the Gulf states co-operated to put down Bahrain’s rebellion in 2011.
In contrast, the African Union has a more universal membership throughout the continent, symbolised by Morocco’s recent decision to rejoin. A number of states have overlapping membership of the two. Despite the Arab world’s cultural interconnectedness and the substantial regionalisation of economic and social actors, its political regionalism is weak. The African Union has much stronger decision-making powers on political and security affairs.
The AU headquarters in Addis Ababa is witness to one of the continent’s most exciting political experiments as Abiy Ahmad, the new prime minister appointed by Ethiopia’s ruling party, implements a radical programme of political, economic and security reforms.
Political prisoners have been released, media freedoms put in place, a peace agreement was reached with Eritrea and a lively political process will culminate in elections next year. That sets a possible model for Sudan and Algeria. Abiy comes from a military background and displays an impatience for change that is transforming the lives of his 100 million countrymen and women. Growing ethnic disputes require careful attention.
Sudan and Algeria depend on cliques of power brokers and factions to govern. Individuals and personal relationships are more important than institutions. In Sudan, the proliferation of competing militias stoked up by ethnic tensions could tip over into renewed civil war, while Algerians lived passively through 2011 still in fear of the murderous conflicts between the army and Islamists in the 1990s.
Substituting new institutions and political processes for such military networking is the greatest challenge facing these revolutionaries. Unless they can do that effectively, both countries will remain prone to military rule.