Much ink has been and is being spilt regarding whether or not current developments in Algeria and Sudan – the second and third most populous Arab states after Egypt – constitute the Second Wave of the “Arab Spring”. But what is clear is that the second and succeeding waves of Arab Uprisings will not look the same as that of 2011.
The cascade of Arab Uprisings of 2011-2012 (known also as the Arab Spring), brought down four regimes – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen – and severely threatened two more: Bahrain, where unrest was put down by the intervention of Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces, and Syria, which descended into a prolonged civil war from which its regime, under President Bashar al-Assad, is now emerging intact.
The Uprisings had even broader effects in the region: Saudi Arabia and the UAE invested significant economic, political and military resources in preventing or rolling back popular movements (as well as containing Iran). They, along with the other monarchies frightened by the democratic and popular forces unleashed – and especially by their Islamist manifestations – hunkered down and enhanced their internal surveillance and security apparatuses. The conservative external intervention facilitated the military counterrevolution in Egypt, but also contributed significantly to the political stalemates in Libya and Yemen. In addition, it led to a major divide in Sunni Muslim politics: Turkey and Qatar enthusiastically supported the populists, especially the Islamists, and therefore became open foes of the Saudi-Emirati-led coalition, whose economic war against Qatar led to an even closer relationship, including a military component, between Doha and Ankara.
The 2011 unrest particularly destabilized Arab republics, whose legitimacy was less clear than that of many of the monarchies (certainly those whose dynasties claim religious significance), and who were less able to form a protective coalition. However, some of the Arab republics (Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Sudan, and Algeria) managed to escape the first wave of the “Arab Spring.” They escaped for differing reasons, but in almost all cases due partly to the existence of a significant national trauma in the two decades preceding 2011, which had led to major political change, civil war and/or violence, and thus to less appetite for additional turbulence.
It is, however, clear that while the momentum of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 had been arrested – and, in Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain, reversed or crushed – the root causes that brought them about still exist and have, in most states, not been addressed and are “burning embers under the ashes.” These include: long-lived, aging, ossified authoritarian leaders and systems with unclear successions; youthful populations, exposed by the decentralization of information and of authority and through new media to “infection” by global trends, increased material and social aspirations, and a resulting crisis of expectations; persistent governance failure, the collapse of the “social contract” between the authoritarian regimes and their subjects, and the perception of the regimes as corrupt, predatory, indifferent, and in thrall to special interest elites; and, of course, the “cascade effect” and the example of others.
For this reason, much ink has been and is being spilt regarding whether or not current developments in Algeria and Sudan – the second and third most populous Arab states after Egypt – constitute the Second Wave of the “Arab Spring”.But what is clear is that the second and succeeding waves of Arab Uprisings will not look the same as that of 2011. The lessons and precedents of the first wave, and of the intervening eight years, have been learned well by both the regimes and the peoples. Among them are: the ability of regimes to prevent their overthrow with the use of pitiless, large-scale violence; the significance of regional and international allies; the key role of the military in the success or failure of regime change; the danger of collapse into chaos and ungovernability; the criticality for the opposition of not being tarred with the brush of jihadism; and the need to take into account the phase after the popular revolution, in which coalitions, inclusive institutions, and capacity for popular rule have to be built. It is also well understood that the international community, much of which encouraged the First Wave in a mistaken sense of democratic triumphalism, is much more cautious in the wake of Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt, and especially the waves of both refugees and jihadi terror they unleashed. In addition, even in the established democratic states, authoritarianism is on the rise, so promotion of democracy is not a high priority for them.
All these lessons and precedents may militate towards what Max Fisher termed “pacted transitions,” which are negotiated between ruling elites and leaders of popular movements; in any case, they will lead to more deliberate and thought-out moves, with more attention to the endgame.
Other players also look at recent developments through the prism of the First Wave, and the lessons they learned shape their responses. The conservative, counter-revolutionary states most fear the contagion and cascade of unrest, and cooperate in defending regimes threatened by popular unrest through such means as financial assistance and political support. Egypt, for example, has been open about its unhappiness with developments in Algeria and Sudan, and has stressed their destabilizing potential. Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, and after his fall, the military junta who replaced him, still enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Russia. Moscow is keeping a keen eye on developments. Algeria is Russia’s third largest customer for military equipment, and a long-time Russian friend and ally. With Sudan, Russia is developing military and political ties which includes a recent agreement on using Sudanese ports for Russian naval vessels. Russian state and “private” security instructors are active in training security forces in Sudan, though both Sudanese and Russian officials deny reports that Russian contractors from the infamous Wagner Group took a direct part in suppressing the unrest.
Every state and society is different; in the end, the immediate drivers for unrest are always local. However, simultaneous popular uprisings certainly do have a reinforcing, cascading effect: in both Algeria and Sudan, demonstrators reportedly chanted “the people want the fall of the regime,” the motto of the Egyptian Tahrir Square revolutionaries. The situations in Algeria and Sudan are developing simultaneously, and each country is certainly aware of developments in the other. However, they are unfolding in extremely different societies in terms of level of economic development and of civil society structures (more different even than Tunisia and Egypt in 2011). Algeria’s relative modernity, developed society (ranking 85th in the UNDP Human Development Index, versus Sudan at 167th) and gas and oil reserves – as well as the lack of violence which characterized the fall of its leader as opposed to the brutal repression in Sudan – all seem to favor its chances for significant change, though this may well fall short of a full democratic transition.
In both Algeria and Sudan, it was the military leadership which in the past two weeks forced the ruler to step down. In both Algeria and Sudan, the key to the next stage of the transition is in the hands of the military leadership, but also of the street. The demonstrators are not going home, but are pushing for the culmination of their popular revolution. All sides are undoubtedly looking at the precedent of Tunisia, where success was achieved because the various opposition and civil society groups built a basis for cooperation and compromise, and the military remained in the barracks. They are also surely examining the precedent of Egypt, where the initial revolution was successful because the military withdrew their support of Mubarak, and therefore was seen as the “savior of the revolution,” while the counter-revolution was successful because the military lost patience and confidence in the civilians and took over.
The next, and more difficult phase – because it requires a disciplining and channeling of the power of the public, are the preparations for elections and, especially, the long slog after them. Can the civil societies of these two countries learn the lessons of their peers, and create or adapt institutions, avoid factionalism and crude majoritarianism, and carry out a process which will leave both the losers in the first round of the political struggle, and the military fearful for its perquisites, committed to peaceful change?
An earlier version of this article was published in the SAIS Review of International Studies.