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The Return of the Arab Spring?

Recent events in both Algeria and Sudan have prompted some analysts to anticipate a second Arab Spring. While protests continue in Algeria after the toppling of President Bouteflika in April, there are signs of hope in Sudan with the recent announcement of a civilian-military power sharing deal.

The deposition of President Omar al-Bashir on April 11 created political upheaval in Sudan. In the aftermath of al-Bashir’s replacement, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) – the military body that deposed the ageing president – initially refused to step aside and allow civilian rule. The TMC violently dispersed demonstrators, killing up to 100 people. The TMC’s actions revealed the entrenched grip of military elements seeking to preserve the autocratic character of the old regime. 

The successful removal of Bouteflika saw tens of thousands of Algerians brave police repression to take to the streets. However, many Algerians believe that Bouteflika was only the façade of the regime and deep state, or Le Pouvoir as it is known locally. Protestors are continuing to call for interim president Abdelkader Bensalah and army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, to step down. Like in Sudan, protestors in Algeria are seeking the removal of what they perceive to be the enduring grip of the old regime. 

Events in Sudan and Algeria threaten to spread to neighboring countries, as the chants of the protestors in Algier’s Audin Square reverberate throughout the region. Morocco is a pertinent example. One survey conducted by the BBC observed that more than half of respondents in Morocco seek immediate political change. Whether mass protests will erupt in Morocco is yet to be known, however the unresolved grievances of the Arab Spring are palpable. 

Eight years on, we have witnessed the outcomes of mass protests and if lessons are not learned from the past, the latest round of protests may meet the same fate. While the 2011 Arab Spring initially brought renewed optimism to the region, it ended in catastrophic failure. The deaths of protestors and imprisonments of dissidents, surely serves as solemn reminder for recent protestors, with lives having already been lost. 

Egypt is a case in point in how the Arab Spring went wrong. With the removal of the Mubarak dictatorship, the yearn for freedom was ostensibly answered by Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi. Just as Morsi’s election symbolised the dawn of a new era for many, his demise at the hands of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup and sudden death has become emblematic of democracy’s often brutal fate in the Middle East and North African region. Except for Tunisia, where protests successfully resulted in increased civil and political liberties, many states in the region have seen the implementation of greater autocratic control or have spiralled into anarchy since the Arab Spring. 

Egypt’s experience with democracy reveals that deposing the front-facing leadership does not necessarily transform the power structure that remains – mainly bureaucrats, members of the security and military establishments, and oligarchs loyal to the old regime. While delaying elections in Algeria favours protestors in buying time to allow civil society forces to coalesce, a powerful remnant of Bouteflika’s regime remains with the potential to thwart progress. The military in both Algeria and Sudan is the repository of power. General Gaid Salah labelled protestors who opposed the army as ‘enemies of Algeria’. This reinforces fears that the protests will ultimately be quelled by the military. 

Nonetheless, the protests in Sudan and Algeria are organic movements of ordinary citizens, with active vibrant and active youth participation, thereby representing the antithesis of octogenarian autocratic dictatorship. Almost seventy percent of Algeria’s population is under the age of 30, closely resembling the demographics of the Arab Spring. Aided by social media and mobilised by economic hardships, these youth seek to topple military-backed regimes. These similarities mean that the challenges that faced protestors in 2011 may resurface again. Without an overarching movement, spontaneous demonstrations risk becoming a solely decentralised mode of opposition.

This can be an unsustainable strategy in the long-term, as it can lead to internal infighting, or eventually fizzle out. 

Revolutions enthuse masses with optimism. However, the experiences of 2011 reveal how initial optimism can be illusory and temporal in the face of powerful militaries and entrenched regime networks. The emergence of a second Arab Spring has an uncanny resemblance to its predecessor. The Egyptian case study reveals a cautionary tale of what can happen without an organised opposition with strong international support. The recent deal in Sudan is certainly a glimpse of hope. Nonetheless, it will be an uphill battle to address the economic and political challenges that lie ahead in Sudan, as protests are continuing in Algeria with little sign of any breakthrough. 

Ibrahim Taha is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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