Protests in the Arab World: The Second Wave

A second wave of protests engulfed the Arab region in 2019, beginning in Algeria and Sudan early in the year and extending to Iraq and Lebanon later in the fall. The first wave in 2011 during the Arab Spring had profound effects in many countries. Libya, Yemen, and Syria ceased functioning as states, for example, and Egypt reverted to a level of authoritarianism it had not experienced since the 1960s. On the other hand, Tunisia and Morocco successfully integrated Islamists in their political systems—a necessary though certainly not sufficient condition for a transition toward democracy—and Saudi Arabia started implementing new economic and social programs, but no political reforms. Outcomes varied, but the protesters’ demands for political participation, jobs, and dignity were not fulfilled anywhere. Street protests brought down several regimes; however, the street soon lost control to the military or the better organized old political forces. Indeed even in Tunisia, the country most analysts believe made some progress toward a democratic transformation, participants in the protests are deeply disillusioned with the outcome and have repeatedly expressed their disappointment by abstaining from voting in national and provincial elections.

The second wave is already having significant consequences that are better discernible in Algeria and Sudan, where people had taken to the streets earlier. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir was deposed and in Algeria President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was prevented from running for a fifth term and was later forced to resign, dealing a blow to the military-civilian establishment that ruled the country and suddenly found itself without a credible figurehead. The situation is still fluid in Lebanon, where Prime Minister Saad Hariri has resigned but may reemerge in the same position, and in Iraq, where Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has announced that he is ready to step aside as long as somebody else manages to form a government. In Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq the protests give no sign of abating, and even in Sudan, where the military and civilians have agreed on a transitional power-sharing mechanism, protests are likely to resume if the agreement falls apart.

The real question is whether the persistence of the protesters will eventually give them a voice in the reconstruction of the political system they rose up against or if they will be sidelined as their predecessors were during the first wave. There are some indications of real differences between the old and new protests. Whether these differences will be sufficient to allow movements that started spontaneously—with little organization to defeat entrenched political and military elites—to change the status quo is a yet unanswerable question.

Two main differences are already evident. First, the 2019 protesters take a much longer view of the transition; they do not expect success in the short run but are prepared to keep up their efforts for an indefinite period. Second, they seem to be more aware of what a transformation really entails and thus are more realistic about the difficulty of the change. The protests in Algeria and Sudan offer the clearer evidence at this point.

The Case of Algeria

Protests in Algeria are now in their 38th week and they do not show any sign of abating. Protest has become a regular weekly affair, involving considerable but not huge numbers of participants. While moderate numbers detract from the drama that so captivated audiences around the world when Egypt erupted in January 2011, they make the protest sustainable over time. Citizens can go about their lives most of the time and still send an unmistakable message to the authorities that people are unhappy with the political establishment.

They have succeeded in forcing former President Bouteflika to resign and desist from running for a fifth term on April 2—but that was the easy part. Bouteflika was old and in bad health, rarely seen in public, and almost certainly no longer really governing the country. As a result, his removal has not really changed the power structure of the country, which is still dominated by members of the military and the political elite that has ruled the country since its independence in 1962. This elite is a collection of old men whose claim to power rests on the success of the war of independence against France more than half a century ago, before most Algerians alive today were even born.

Yet this elite still claims legitimacy. When Bouteflika resigned, Senate President Abdelkader Bensaleh—another old and feeble-looking man—became interim president for a period of three months in order to organize elections, as stipulated in the constitution. With elections postponed until December 12, he remains in that position. De facto, Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaid Saleh, and more broadly the military, are the ultimate arbiters of power. Saleh himself is almost 80 and belongs to the generation of military leaders who participated in the war of independence.

Superficially, the Algerian scenario so far is the familiar one that unfolded repeatedly in the first wave of uprisings: protesters obtain a superficial victory but the power structure does not change. The difference this time is that Algerian protesters saw through the problem and did not accept the transition model the establishment was trying to impose. They did not applaud the military for forcing Bouteflika from power and they did not declare “the army and the people are one,” as their Egyptian counterparts had done. Instead, they continued protesting. So far, they have not been able to stop an election process that they correctly see as a sham in the absence of other reforms, though they managed to postpone it until December 12. However, they made clear that they will not vote or accept election results and will continue protesting.

Sudan Is Different

The case of Sudan is quite different and right now protesters appear to have scored a real victory. Demonstrations triggered by price increases started in December 2018, and on April 11, the military overthrew President Omar al-Bashir and formed a Transitional Military Council. But the military was divided and uncertain how to proceed, working its way through two military leaders in two days. The protesters, for their part, succeeded in organizing better than expected, drawing in the professional syndicates and other civil society organizations. This gave the opposition a cadre of competent and credible leaders.

The Sudanese opposition could draw on a previous experience: in 1985, then-President Jaafar al-Nimeiri was overthrown in a military coup d’état after a period of protest that saw the mobilization of civil society organizations, including the country’s major professional association. Like today, the military was divided internally and could not ignore completely the demands of the major political parties and civil society groups that are well rooted in the history of the country. As a result, they moved quickly to restore civilian government. The outcome of the May 1986 elections was predictable. The two political parties linked to the country’s religious brotherhoods carried the day—as they had done whenever elections were held—and Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the Umma Party, became prime minister. What appeared as a successful transition to an elected government did not last, however. The new government was too beholden to a religious brotherhood to satisfy the demands of secular organizations but not religious enough to satisfy those of radical Islamists. In June 1989, a new coup put an end to the democratic experiment, bringing to power Omar al-Bashir with Islamist support.

Once again, Sudan is in the midst of a seemingly promising transition. Faced with continuing protest even after the ouster of Bashir, the Transitional Military Council recognized the necessity of dealing with the civilian forces. Protesters managed to organize the umbrella Forces of Freedom and Change, which included a coalition of professional associations and a vast array of other groups formed during the protests. With the mediation of Ethiopia and the African Union, the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change reached an agreement on how to restore civilian rule. The agreement was announced on July 17 and called for the formation of a Joint Civilian-Military Sovereign Council that would govern for a 39-month transitional period leading to elections. A military representative would head the council for the first 21 months and a civilian for the next 18.

On August 22, the head of the Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, appointed Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister. In turn, he appointed a cabinet of technocrats from names proposed by the Forces of Freedom and Change. So far, the system appears to be working.

The Sudanese opposition has clearly learned a great deal from the failures of protesters in other countries, namely the importance of continuing protest, the centrality of organization, and the need for negotiations and compromise. It has also learned from its own experience in 1986 when elections hastily organized after the overthrow of President Nimeiri brought back into power the same religious-affiliated parties that had dominated Sudanese politics in the past, eventually opening the way for a new military coup. The agreed transitional process may give time to other parties and new leadership to emerge.

The outcome in the Sudan is probably as good as it can get in any country where the military has a tradition of coups d’état and political involvement and where civilians have been prevented from organizing for long periods. Yet the transition is extremely vulnerable, particularly if the military succeeds in overcoming its internal divisions and refuses to turn over the leadership to civilians after the initial 21 months.

Some Lessons Learned

The uprisings in Algeria and Sudan suggest that protesters in those two countries have learned from the failure of the 2011 uprisings and are much more sophisticated in their understanding of how civilian protesters might be able to unseat entrenched authoritarian regimes. It is difficult at this point to judge whether protesters in Iraq and Lebanon are beginning to exhibit greater sophistication because the situation remains chaotic. Even there, however, protesters appear much more aware now that a transition from authoritarianism cannot happen quickly. They appear ready to fight over the long run and to remain mobilized. Above all, they are much more aware of the difficulty of the task.

To be sure, countries ruled by authoritarian regimes are not condemned to remain such in perpetuity. Many studies have documented how transitions from authoritarianism took place in Latin America and southern Europe, for example. Those transitions were not always smooth and certainly not uncontroversial—there are losers and thus resistance in all transitions. But the evidence from numerous studies suggests that transitions from authoritarianism usually took place when at least one part of the ruling elite was beginning to question whether the status quo could last and thus believed that some change was imperative.

So far, Arab protesters appear to be facing elites that remain united in their support of existing systems and adamantly opposed to reforms that undermine their power. Protesters thus are confronting a particularly arduous task; and although they are undoubtedly learning from their experiences and from those in other Arab countries, the obstacles to success remain great indeed. Nevertheless, protest continues and the process is far from over.

Photo credit: Twitter/Dalal Mawad