Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

Keep your eye on these two critical dynamics in Algeria and Sudan

| Apr. 14, 2019

BEIRUT — The ongoing street demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan and the high-level changes in leadership they have sparked include political developments that are very different from the Arab Uprisings of 2010-11 (the so-called “Arab Spring”). We should watch two dynamics, in particular, to find out if this is genuinely a historic moment of change, or another re-run of previous uprisings and some toppled leaders of Arab authoritarian states that did not fundamentally change how power is exercised or how citizens are treated.

The two dynamics to watch are: 1) the demonstrators’ insistence that the entire political leadership and its security appendages be removed or reformed, rather than just deposing the president; and that they be replaced by a civilian authority to assume power across the government, without any disproportionate role for the military and security agencies in governance; and, 2) the early discussions about holding accountable those across the power structure, and not just in government, that should be charged with crimes against the citizenry, abuse of power, war crimes, or crimes against humanity.

These dynamics represent an important new dimension to Arab popular rebellions against authoritarian rule; they are being implemented to some degree already, and should not be brushed aside as romantic wishes of naive young men and women. In the last two weeks, in both countries, demonstrators and citizens at home who support them have learned to focus the immense immediate energy of their collective power on the one issue that has been the single most important impediment to decent governance and sustainable and equitable human development in the Arab region over the past half century: the absolute power of military and security officers who seized executive authority in Arab countries starting as early as the 1936 coup by General Bakr Sidqi in Iraq and the 1952 coup in Egypt led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and fellow officers.

Ever since then, military and security officers steadily assumed power across all Arab “republics” like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Algeria and others, and expanded their powers to dominate the legislative and judicial branches of government. Military rulers spurred rapid state-led growth and state-building in the early decades of their rule in the 1950s-70s; but by the 1980s these systems started to stagnate and decline, as they became corrupted due to lack of accountability and the distorting lure of oil-generated wealth flowing across the region.

The citizens of the Arab region rebelled against these autocratic and authoritarian systems for decades, to no avail. In the past decade of massive popular uprisings, however, they showed that they understand their central national weakness to be the military’s unchecked dominance of governance and control of political-economic power. The insistence of the citizenries in Algeria and Sudan on a genuinely civilian authority to oversee the transition to a fully democratic governance system has been importantly manifested in the past ten days by two telling developments: the demonstrators’ repeated rejections of interim leaders from the old power structure, and negotiations with the military to shape a transitional authority that is dominated by civilians.

In other words, following the lead of the Tunisian people in 2010-14, we may now be witnessing the transition of two of the largest and most important Arab countries to systems that respect the principle of “the consent of the governed,” and that genuinely vest political authority in the people. If this happens in Algeria and Sudan, we are likely to see it expand steadily to other Arab lands.

The second important and related issue beyond the demonstrators’ demand that the military stay out of government is that all individuals who abused the citizenry or engaged in criminal or abusive acts be held accountable, including, significantly, private sector individuals who formed part of the ruling power structure. A few have already been detained or prevented from leaving the country in Algeria and Sudan, but it will take time for the transitional authorities to structure credible judicial mechanisms to bring to justice the alleged war criminals and abusers of powers. Changing the president is a meaningful achievement in the uprising’s initial stage, but it is meaningless ultimately if it does not eject from authority the rings of crony capitalists, security appendages, and ruling family-linked associates who monopolized power and ran the country and its economy into the ground.

The past ten days are especially important and impressive for revealing how firmly the populist demonstrators in Algeria and Sudan maintained their focus on these two central demands, kept insisting on them both, and to date have been able to push the military to make concessions. This is a tangible change from the 2011-14 transition in Egypt that remains the emblematic example of how not to allow the military to remain in power in the face of popular demands for democratic pluralism and civilian rule.

Genuine civilian-led governance in large Arab countries is the right of their citizens. It is likely to happen soon, and it will be a sight to behold, to celebrate, and to protect.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and adjunct professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. He can be followed @ramikhouri

Copyright ©2019 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“Keep your eye on these two critical dynamics in Algeria and Sudan.” Agence Global, April 14, 2019.