Another Arab Spring?

The slogans of the ‘Arab Spring’ are being heard again in the Arab world. “The people want the fall of the regime,” chant the protesters in Sudan, where almost three months of popular demonstrations challenge the power of long-ruling dictator Omar al-Bashir. He acknowledges the parallels himself, condemning the demos as “an attempt to copy the so-called Arab spring for Sudan.”

At the other end of the Arab world, in Algeria, the demos began only last month, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power for the last twenty years, announced that he will run for a fifth term in the forthcoming elections. He is 82 years old and so badly affected by a stroke six years ago that he can hardly walk or talk.

Bouteflika’s last public speech was in 2014, and the most common poster in the street protests just shows a wheelchair with a big red X over it. As Algerian writer Kamel Daoud put it, by offering a candidate “who is almost dead”, the regime is showing its contempt for the young people in Algeria (where more than 30% of people aged under 30 are unemployed).

The real reason for putting up Bouteflika once again is that the various elements of ‘le pouvoir’ (the power), as everybody call the regime, could not agree on any other candidate. But it is an insult to the public, and the regime is frightened by the reaction.

Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia praised the demonstrators for using strictly non-violent tactics (as in the time of the Arab Spring), citing an incident where they gave roses to the security forces policing the protests. But, he pointed out, the non-violent pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria in 2011, which triggered a ghastly civil war, also “started with exchanges of roses.”

So is the Arab Spring coming back so soon? Probably not.

You couldn’t find two Arab countries with much less in common. Algeria is a reasonably well-educated, middle-income country; Sudan is a very poor country where the literacy rate is actually falling. Sudanese are black; Algerians are white. The varieties of popular Arabic spoken in Algeria and Sudan are mutually incomprehensible. But they do have two things in common.

They are both dictatorships of very long standing. The National Liberation Front has ruled Algeria since 1962, with Bouteflika as its front man for the past twenty years. Bashir came to power in a military coup thirty years ago. And both countries largely missed out on the original Arab Spring: there were scattered demonstrations, quickly appeased or crushed, but nothing more.

As in the Arab Spring, the protests this time are really fuelled by falling living standards. A dictatorship that was tolerated while living standards were rising becomes intolerable when there are not enough jobs and it’s getting hard to put food on the table.

In Sudan this time, it was a cut in the subsidy on bread that set off the protests, but that was the last of many cuts over the past decade. Sudan lost three-quarters of its oil income when South Sudan became a separate country in 2011, and the regime can no longer afford to buy the population off with subsidies of various sorts. Algeria still has its oil, but has been hurt badly by the sustained fall in oil prices since 2014.

This doesn’t mean that Sudanese and Algerians would love their rulers if there was more money in their pockets. They have never more than tolerated them, but the cost of trying to do something about the situation seemed too high. Now it doesn’t seem that high any more, at least not compared to the alternative.

The protests in Sudan may actually succeed in unseating Bashir, although not necessarily the military-dominated regime he leads. The regime in Algeria has already made a key concession, with Bouteflika promising to hold a referendum on a new constitution and then call fresh elections (in which he will not run) before the end of his next five-year term.

The regime is hoping that will be enough to let it stay in power, and it may be right. Algerians are deeply scarred by the terrible civil war of the 1990s, when Islamists waged a ten-year campaign of terror after their impending victory in a free election was cancelled by the military. People remain frightened of anything that could bring back that time, maybe even including too-free elections.

And nobody else in the Arab world is ready to pick up the torch just yet. The Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, both triggered by the popular, initially non-violent revolutions of the Arab Spring, may finally be stumbling towards an end, but the whole tragic sequence of events is still too fresh in people’s minds for them to want to try again.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Bouteflika’s…reaction”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.