The Arab Spring Is Not Over Yet
Major protests in Algeria and Sudan show that the spirit of 2011 lives on.
When Wael Ghonim and I called for protests through the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” in January 2011, we—along with millions of Egyptians who subsequently took part in the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak—dreamed of building a new republic based on democracy, justice, and freedom. For a short while, it seemed like our hopes were going to materialize, but gradually gains turned to losses, especially following the summer of 2013, when the full force of counterrevolution brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. Other authoritarian leaders in the region were emboldened, and they were convinced that a counterrevolution, led by security and military authorities and the old guard, would secure their dominance over popular movements once and for all.
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However, new waves of protests have gained traction every few months, showing that the popular movements that started eight years ago are alive and well and will not end anytime soon.
In Algeria—a country of 42 million people, nearly 50 percent of whom are under the age of 30—an elderly president who has ruled for 20 years is running for re-election. Following a stroke in 2013, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, has continued to suffer severe health issues. Since then, he has never given a public speech. Nevertheless, he is once again the ruling National Liberation Front’s candidate for the presidential election in April.
The absurd nomination of the aging Bouteflika came as a blow to millions of Algerians and sparked protests in the capital and in other cities throughout the country. As in Egypt in 2011, calls for demonstrations started on social media and were answered by tens of thousands of people, who took to the streets to protest Bouteflika’s run for a fifth term as well as widespread corruption. These protests have grown steadily, culminating on March 1 in what has been described as “the country’s biggest anti-government demonstrations since the Arab Spring eight years ago.”
The Algerian president responded quickly. On Sunday, his campaign manager, Abdul Ghani Zaalan, appeared on television to indicate that while Bouteflika still intended to run for election in April, he would only remain in power for one year if re-elected, with a pledge to hold an early election in which he would not seek a sixth term within 12 months. This statement did little to quell the protests; demonstrators came out in the thousands shortly after the statement.
Algeria has a fraught history with democracy. In the 1990s, the military overturned an Islamist party’s victory in parliamentary elections, pushing the country into a violent conflict that left over 100,000 people dead. The government’s narrative, which uses the memory of devastation and destruction from the civil war to frighten and intimidate people, has not stopped the protesters from taking to the streets. They have kept their rallies peaceful and have taken inspiration from similar peaceful protests, like the first wave of the Arab Spring.
Though Algerians have faced some violence from the authorities, the protests there were not met with nearly as much brute force as those in Sudan. In the course of the past two months, tens of thousands of people have joined protests demanding the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir. Police have used rubber bullets and live ammunition against the peaceful protesters, resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Protests in Sudan started on Dec. 19, 2018, and were triggered by an increase in fuel prices and a surge in inflation rates. This quickly evolved into protests against Bashir himself, who has ruled the country since the 1989 coup and who is notorious for leading an armed confrontation in Darfur that has so far claimed the lives of about 300,000 Sudanese, prompting the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant against Bashir in 2009 for the commission of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The president finally addressed protesters in late February, announcing that he was dismissing the cabinet, declaring a nationwide state of emergency, replacing the governors of Sudan’s 18 states with military and security officials, postponing constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for re-election again in 2020, and stepping down as head of the ruling National Congress Party until the party’s next general conference, delegating his powers and authority to deputy head Ahmed Mohammed Haroun.
Although that statement was seen as a partial victory, more people took to the streets across Sudan following the speech, as Bashir’s calls for dialogue with opposition groups were widely viewed as an attempt to pacify popular sentiment that he should step down.
Against this backdrop of repression in Sudan, state repression still continues in Egypt. Indeed, repression under Sisi’s government has reached a level unprecedented in the country’s modern history. An ongoing crackdown has stifled all forms of dissent and left many opposition leaders in jail. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 60,000 political prisoners have entered Egyptian jails since July 2013; thousands of them were arbitrarily arrested and deprived of any meaningful due process.
The most recent manifestation of this crackdown is the arrest by the regime of four prominent members of the Constitution Party, which was founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who has been in voluntary exile since the Raba massacre in August 2013, when Egyptian security forces and the army violently cracked down on a sit-in of protesters voicing support for ex-President Mohamed Morsi, killing at least 800 of them.
These arrests followed the launch of a social media campaign by opposition parties to collect signatures against a set of constitutional amendments recently introduced in the Egyptian parliament that would allow Sisi to remain in power until 2034. Approximately 30,000 signatures were collected in one week—a significant number considering the regime’s severe intimidation of any political opposition. The amendments are expected to be put to a referendum this year.
Despite these clear and widespread human rights violations, none of the European leaders participating in the European Union-League of Arab States summit in February seemed to detect any apparent contradiction between the severe repression exercised by their Egyptian host and the values of freedom and democracy that European states so enthusiastically preach.
While Egyptian authorities were busy arresting activists for their opposition to the proposed constitutional amendments, EU leaders applauded Sisi as he dwelled on the only problem they seem to care about: terrorism. Not a word of criticism was pronounced by European Council President Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or British Prime Minister Theresa May about the fact that Sisi’s government was detaining activists even as he told summit attendees that peaceful political opposition is “a healthy phenomenon and a fundamental pillar for any sound political life.”
Sisi’s European guests failed to remind him that last year, he arrested virtually any viable candidate who considered running against him for the presidency. As a result, prominent figures, such as the former presidential candidate Sami Anan and former chief auditor Hisham Genina, are still in jail.
Even as Sisi claimed to accept peaceful opposition, he insisted that that Egypt had a “different culture,” insinuating that there was a justification for his regime’s transgressions of human rights. EU leaders’ participation in the summit simply provided political cover for Sisi, who seeks to demonstrate that even as his regime is severely criticized for human rights violations, it still enjoys the support of prominent international allies.
Instead, Western leaders should realize that they now have an opportunity to change their stance and stop turning a blind eye to flagrant human rights violations in the Arab world. Indeed, the wave of protests in Sudan and Algeria is an opportunity for Western leaders to declare their support for both countries’ popular movements that are contesting the legitimacy of aging authoritarian rulers.
Failing to take a firm stance toward dictators in the region severely harms these peaceful mass movements, casts doubt on the credibility of Western attachment to democratic values and basic morality, and undermines the stability of the region. Western support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East is short-sighted and represents a failure to learn from mistakes of the past. Even though some of those autocratic Arab regimes may look stable, they stand on fragile legs. They remain vulnerable to sudden collapse, which would potentially pave the way for chaos in the region.
European leaders should instead stress the importance of justice and human rights as a condition for strong military and economic relations. Arms sales to autocratic regimes have only aggravated the political and economic crises in the region by enabling human rights violations. Examples include the use of French weapons against peaceful protesters in Egypt, or the use of U.S. combat weapons by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to devastate Yemen.
The Arab Spring might seem burned out in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya due to the combination of unprecedented repression, violence, and regional and foreign intervention. However, people are still able to find ways to peacefully express their disapproval. Intimidation by the authorities is not going to scare people away from demanding their rights.
Despite the West’s ongoing support for dictators in the region and despite the violence of counterrevolutions, people have continued to protest and challenge their autocratic rulers through digital activism and other initiatives that steer clear of direct confrontation with the authorities. And whenever people see a chance to take to the streets to voice their anger, they seize it—as protesters in Algeria and Sudan have made clear.
Indeed, Arabs continue to build on the first wave of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Peaceful mass mobilization remains the only choice available to continue the struggle for democracy in the region. The counterrevolution in the Arab world will continue to lose power and will eventually collapse under the weight of these movements.
The West should learn from its recent mistakes and replace short-sighted tactics and support for authoritarian leaders with long-term strategy to avoid the inescapable loss that comes from standing on the wrong side of history and alienating the leaders of tomorrow.