22 March 2019

North Africa: Are We Seeing a Second Wave of the Arab Spring?

analysis

Protesters have been taking to the streets in Sudan and Algeria, drawing parallels to the Arab uprisings in 2011, writes Georges Fahmi.

Over the past few months, protesters have been taking to the streets in Sudan and Algeria, calling for political change.

In Sudan, the protest movement started as a reaction to an increase in the price of bread in December, eventually escalating into demands for regime change. Although the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has promised economic and political reforms, protestors have continued calling for him to step down.

In Algeria, the protests started in February in objection to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to run for a fifth term. Under pressure from the protests, Bouteflika has decided to drop his plan to run again and has proposed postponing the elections while political reforms are implemented. Nevertheless, protesters have continued demanding for his resignation.

The widespread protests in both countries have brought back memories of the Arab uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa region in 2011, leading many people to ask whether we are witnessing a second wave of the Arab Spring. The straightforward answer is: we are but the outcome of these protests is yet to be known.

The 2011 Arab uprisings had four main characteristics: they were nationwide, sustained over time, political in nature and interconnected. This new wave of protests ticks all of these four boxes.

In both Sudan and Algeria, for example, the ongoing protests have spread across different cities, including the capital cities of Algiers and Khartoum.

The protesters have been able to, so far, sustain their activities for three months in Sudan and one month in Algeria.

This wave has also gone beyond socio-economic grievances to develop clear political demands evidenced by its slogans, 'Just fall that is all' in Sudan and 'No to the fifth mandate' in Algeria, as well as other slogans borrowed from 2011.

Finally, as was the case in 2011, the two protest movements are being influenced by each other: the important milestone achieved by the Algerian protest movement in pushing Bouteflika not to seek a fifth mandate has given more power to the protest movement in Sudan, which had been showing some signs of exhaustion. In addition, both protest movements are being closely followed by politically active young people in other countries across the region as well.

However, although the protest movements in the two countries have been inspiring others, their outcome will depend on both external and internal factors.

Externally, this second wave of the Arab uprisings enjoys less international support than the first wave received in January 2011. This is mainly due to the experience of the first wave, particularly in Libya and Syria, which has led many Western policymakers to think twice before showing their support for political change in the region.

Moreover, since 2011, right-wing parties have gained power in several Western countries, most notably in the US, which have prioritized issues of migration and counterterrorism at home over political freedom and human rights abroad.

In addition, since 2011, the growing influence of Russia in the region, and its strategy of providing support to the regimes currently in place, has also played a role.

As a result, this lack of international pressure has given both regimes in Sudan and Algeria more room to manoeuvre. Both Bashir and Bouteflika have been seeking to make concessions, by mainly promising political reforms, that would allow them to placate protesters but without the need for regime change.

However, internally, the situation seems more positive. The eruption of these two protest movements, at this particular moment, reveals a strong domestic demand for democracy.

While in 2011, hopes were high for achieving smooth democratic transitions, this second wave has followed on from the experience of the defeat of its first iteration in all countries, save Tunisia, which instead led to civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

While the purpose of the Arab Spring appeared to have been defeated in 2011, this new wave proves that the demand for freedom and justice is still strong among the people of the region. In fact, opposition forces in both Sudan and Algeria, have the advantage of looking at other experiences of regime change over the past eight years to learn from their mistakes.

However, putting both the external and internal elements together reveals that bringing down old regimes in this new wave will not be as quick as it was in most cases in 2011 especially given the lack of international support. Yet, in the long term, opposition forces will be more experienced in managing transitional periods due to the lessons learned from the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Just like the first wave taught us, democratic outcomes in Algeria and Sudan are not guaranteed. Nevertheless, the protest movements in both countries do show that authoritarianism remains contested by the people of the region. Even at the very moment that authoritarianism - represented by the Syrian regime - seemed to be victorious over freedom, dignity and justice, the people of this region still dare to dream of a better future where their voices are taken seriously.

Dr Georges Fahmi

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

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