The military have made their move in Algeria and Sudan – but is there something the generals have missed?

The 21st century is proving that Arab soldiers are no longer the only educated, organised and well-disciplined faction of society

Ahmed Aboudouh
Monday 15 April 2019 16:05
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Sudan: Khartoum celebrates as Ibn Ouf steps down

Being an army chief has always been a shortcut to becoming president in the Middle East. Sudan’s uprising is just the latest example of that doctrine.

Since the first Arab military coup, led by Hosny al-Zaim in Syria in 1949, the Middle East political establishment has resembled a military camp. Generals have dominated political, economic and social structures. And they have ruled in the name of the army, not the people.

The fall of Arab kingdoms and royalty, post-independence, helped speed the rise of the army to become the modern threat to civilian rule. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt can take some of the blame. He created a heroic image of the military officer who could change the course of a nation, a champion who could embody its new identity.

At least now Middle East generals are having to work harder. They face a cataclysm of awareness from young people about what the military is really after. But as much as there are lessons for the people from uprisings elsewhere, there are also lessons for the soldiers on how to squash them.

In Sudan, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) chose to go by the book, aping the Egyptian military Junta post the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising. General Abdelfattah Burhan, who has been appointed over the weekend as the head of TMC will be, in effect, the president of Sudan until the end of the two-year transitional period, just like Egypt’s Tantawi.

In Algeria, General Ahmed Gaid Saleh is following Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s rules which were used to force the Muslim Brotherhood to step down in 2013.

Yes, they take different roads, but they’re heading in the same destination. The desire is to protect what power is left from the military heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, generals were the real revolutionaries in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Algeria. Just like today’s youths, but with guns in their hands.

The military played a crucial role in modernising the Arab world, but it came with an oppressive system of domination. Now, the political, economic, social and religious systems the military put in place over the years are collapsing. It seems the last to see it were the generals.

The 21st century is proving that Arab soldiers are no longer the only educated, organised and well-disciplined faction of society. Cheap technology and social media have changed the rules of the game. Young people who have educated themselves by spending their days staring at a computer screen and now know that a uniform alone does not give you authority.

This is a latest stage in a longer trend. The military’s strength has been chipped away at by open competitive markets, much-needed foreign investments and the by steady pressure of left-wing groups (including the “Kefaya” movement in Egypt and the workers unions in Tunisia). In addition, a new class of business oligarchs, protected by powerful civilian politicians, has emerged to threaten the military’s interests.

But the chaos of the 2011 uprisings gave the generals new hope. Here was a chance to recoup the ground they had lost during the 2000s.

In Algeria, the generals see themselves as the only legitimate defenders of the country’s liberation revolution against French occupation. In Sudan, they are the sole guardians of the country’s independence from the British colonisation.

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Now, both the military and the protesters, in Algiers and Khartoum, are in gridlock over two very different paths to salvation.

The 20th century gave us a glimpse of how military rule starts in the Middle East; the 21st century may be showing us how it ends. It is never smooth. On the contrary, only four rattling events are capable of bringing a general’s term in power to its finale: death, another military coup, foreign invasion or a popular uprising.

Gone are the days where military coups were rejoiced by people in the Arab world. It seems the generals are the only ones who do not see it.

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