Another Arab Spring?
Anti-government protests in Algeria and Sudan against oppressive regimes resemble the pro-democracy outcry of 2011
The Arab Spring that swept much of the Arab countries eight years ago seems to be knocking at the doors of the Arab world once again if one goes by the recent eruption of anti-government protests in Algeria and Sudan. The protesters in these countries are voicing the same sentiments that led to uprisings also known as Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria in 2011.
Tens of thousands of people from all sections of society have been demonstrating across Algeria since last month, after the country's 82-year-old wheelchair-bound ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his decision to run for a fifth term in the presidential elections to be held on April 18.
The protestors turned out not just in the capital Algiers and major cities of Oran and Constantine but also in cities and town such as Batna, Blida, Skikda, Borja Bour Arreridj and elsewhere. They had no organisers. Initially, it began online by demonstrating the power and reach of social media, particularly among the youth. Later, people from other generations also actively participated in the demonstrations.
The protestors also highlighted corruption and unemployment plaguing the country and demanded an overhaul of a stagnant political system dominated by veterans of the 1954-62 war of independence against France.
After many days of silence and perhaps sensing the public mood, Bouteflika – who has been in power since 1999 – in a letter read out on the state television on March 11, announced that he would not seek the office for a fifth term but gave no indication of whether he would step down when his mandate expires next month.
The Algerian leader, who has barely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, also postponed the April elections and announced that a new constitution would be put to a referendum. There was no word as to when either would be held. This shows that "he gives in on the presidential but not on power," independent newspaper El Watan wrote in an editorial titled "Bouteflika's last trick".
Ali Benflis who worked as Bouteflika's prime minister from 2000 to 2003 before launching his own party, Talaie El-Hurriyet, and establishing himself as one of the leading opposition figures said in a Facebook post: "The extension of the fourth term is an act of aggression against the constitution by non-constitutional forces (hinting at the shadow advisers surrounding the president, mainly his brother Said)."
Continued protests in various cities, even after Bouteflika's letter, sent a clear message that the demonstrators do not intend to back down. Four of Bouteflika's long-ruling counterparts – in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were all ousted following the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Although some observers have likened the protests to the 2011 Arab uprisings, many said this comparison is reductive and fails to account for Algeria, whose power structure extends beyond the leadership's inner circle and whose history or revolutionary fervour and pro-democracy activism that led to a multiparty system in 1988 remain important.
However, it is to be noted that young Algerians have no bond with the independence war except through their grandparents. Their priorities are to get employment and better services that the North African country is failing to provide despite its oil and gas wealth. The country's opposition also remains badly fragmented. Although Algerian analysts have spoken for promoting prominent figures within the political system, it remains to be seen if this would happen.
Bouteflika also promised "deep reforms" and an "inclusive and independent national conference" that would lead to a "transformation of our nation state", and fixed polls. He also removed the "unpopular" Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and appointed the high-profile 59-year-old interior minister Noureddine Bedouin in his place.
However, initiatives by the veteran revolutionary to defuse the situation have failed to satisfy many Algerians who want the power to move to a younger generation with fresh ideas. There is no indication that the demonstrations will come to an end in the near future.
Bedouin said his government would rule for "a short period of time" and an independent commission will oversee the next presidential election. He also urged opposition to accept dialogue but lawyers and activists, who protestors have chosen to lead the drive for reforms, are in no mood to compromise and have said that they will not negotiate, at least for now.
Albara, a town in northeastern Sudan, last erupted in protest on December 19 against the military dictatorship that has ruled the country for almost three decades following a tripling of bread prices to demand "freedom, peace, justice and the downfall of the regime." The protests intensified into nationwide demonstrations against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's three-decade regime. Demonstrators set fire to the ruling National Congress Party's headquarters.
On February 22, the government declared a state of emergency and imposed curfew in towns where some of the first protests took place. Several tough measures including a ban on unauthorised rallies and permitting security forces to carry out raids and searches without warrants have been imposed.
Schools and universities were closed. National newspapers were censored or shut down. Internet service was disrupted and mobile phone operators restricted access to WhatsApp and other social media sites. At least 31 people have officially died so far in actions by security forces against the protestors. However, the Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 51.
Even on Thursday, scores of protesters rallied in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, as Bashir swore in a new cabinet to tackle the economic crisis that has triggered months of protests against his rule. Possibly, this represented the greatest threat to the regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir since he came to power in a military coup in 1989.
Observers say that Bashir is unlikely to give in to such protests as during his three decades in power he has never hesitated to unleash violence against his own population. However, it is clear that decades of pent up frustration of the people against the ruling class is slowly finding its release.
Sudan has for years been grappling with soaring inflation and an acute shortage of foreign currency, especially since the secession of the South in 2011 that took away the bulk of oil earnings. The sustained popular uprising in both Algeria and Sudan seems to be gathering force, indicating that Arab uprising is resuming but it is too early to predict the outcome.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)