I watched as our Egyptian revolution was stolen by the military – now Algeria and Sudan must avoid the same trap

The history of Arab uprisings has been both stupid and brutal – apart from when the generals stood aside

Ahmed Aboudouh
Friday 12 April 2019 16:46
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Protesters in Sudan rejoice after officials say al Bashir has quit

I was a protester in Cairo’s Tahrir square in 2011, and so I have been following the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings with a ringing note of caution. I know exactly what might go wrong in the coming days.

There is a risk of miscalculation driven by overconfidence. The protestors managed to control the public space in their millions across Algiers and Khartoum, but now the political activists and affiliated politicians are becoming aware of their limited resources. How should they seek to run the country’s institutions?

The Sudanese and Algerians – unlike us Egyptians eight years ago – seem to be more clued up. They understand that although the military generals must be involved, the essence of their intervention is to defend all sorts of long-accumulated power put together during their former master’s time in office.

This should be enough to put an end to any potential romantic, quixotic and unrealistic perceptions that the military might intend to deliver to the crowds their dreamed-of, rosy, “democratic” future.

The history of Arab uprisings has been both stupid and brutal – apart from when the generals stood aside. Putting the military in charge of the transitional period after a popular uprising means making the nation hostage to the soldiers’ will and one-eyed notion of patriotism. After a while, whoever opposes the military’s interests will soon be labelled unpatriotic.

Sudan seems to be more at risk of following the fate of Egypt, where the army pushed Hosni Mubarak aside following the 2011 mass protests and led the country into a very messy transition and the bloodiest point in Egypt’s modern history. The generals would later create an unprecedented form of authoritarianism and whip away any hope for change.

The Egyptian uprising highlighted an underlying democratic aspiration among Arab nations, but after a number of setbacks, the Egyptian military became the real inspiration for all Arab generals. They have offered a blueprint for how to contain a powerful uprising and maintain power.

In Algeria, General Ahmed Gaid Salah has stuck to the constitution and rule of law in paving the way for a limited change within the regime’s ranks. The Sudanese generals meanwhile, have torn the 2005 constitution apart, announced a state of emergency, curfew and formed a military council to simply replace President Omar al-Bashir, whom they arrested.

It is true that in Arab republics, people have been conditioned to value the generals’ position within the ruling elite. For many, the military is not just the fighting force, but also the supreme leader (even above the president, elected or not) who will guide the nation in times of despair. Both Sudan and Algeria will not descend into Syria-like chaos simply because the generals will do what they are there for. But their role must stop just there, and must not go any further.

Removing Abdelaziz Bouteflika and al-Bashir from power is not the end, it is the end of the beginning. Algerians will have a long battle ahead to stop already looming attempts by Bouteflika’s men from overseeing a change-of-names-only operation. The Sudanese people will have to fight the military’s violent and incompetent vision for their own future.

There is hope in the fact that protesters in Algeria and Sudan proved that Arabs are not intimidated by the experience in Syria and Yemen, by which dictators elsewhere in the region stunt the people to head off the threat of protests. Algeria and Sudan have again opened Pandora’s box, and triggered what might be a second wave of sweeping change around the Middle East.

People across the region are watching events in Sudan and Algeria closely. They are no longer distracted by Iran’s hostility (which has been used as propaganda by Gulf monarchies). The mood in the Middle East is once again for change, and dictators should be worried.

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And in that there is a chance that the Middle East’s fate might not be determined by the fight Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are willing to pick with Iran. Instead, perhaps it will be drawn by the success or failure of Sudan and Algeria’s near future. For the first time the Middle East’s destiny is in the hands of countries which are not part of the classic central sphere of the Arab club.

Both countries have a genuine chance of a complete transformation, but it is still the military maths in the equation that will set the rules for the future.

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it”, George Orwell once said. The Arab world so far proved him right. Let’s hope the Sudanese and Algerians will show the opposite to be true.

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