Geopolitics

Ten Years Later, How Arab Spring Delusion Feeds Islamist Rise

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, it first triggered a wave of revolts, then hopes of a historic liberalization in Arab countries. But the doors of democracy, barely half-opened, have been shut ever since.

Crowds of Egyptians during an anti-government protest in Cairo in January 2011
Crowds of Egyptians during an anti-government protest in Cairo in January 2011
Dominique Moisi

-Analysis-

PARIS — Exactly 10 years ago, on December 17, 2010, a low-key Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller felt so harassed and abused by public officials that he set himself on fire. Bouazizi's fatal act of desperation and revolt would mark the beginning of a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, that spread from Tunisia to Egypt, and then on to Libya and Syria.

A decade later, what remains of this immense flame of hope? It was of course very quickly followed — with the notable exception of Tunisia — by a wave of repression, sometimes fierce, as in Syria. How did we go from the Arab Spring to the Islamic winter? And then on to the deepening of the infernal dialectic between authoritarianism and corruption? It's as if the doors of democracy, barely ajar, had been summarily closed by those of the kleptocracy.

Was the hope unfounded, nothing more than a product of a far too Western reading of a culture that we did not understand, of images that we did not know how to interpret?

It is of course easier to destroy than to rebuild. The young people of Tahrir Square in Cairo were able to bring down President Mubarak, but they were unable to create a democratic, strong and stable Egypt. They were caught between a security apparatus — dependent for the maintenance of its wealth on its presence in power — and the Muslim Brotherhood, who would soon prove their mixture of incompetence and intolerance.

Over time, the Arab Spring has exposed the dangerous limits of Islamists and political Islam, but has not strengthened civil society and the cause of democracy. The direct, almost mathematical link between the extent of Egypt's debt and the wealth of the "Egyptian generals' was strengthened at a time when the voices that remained of freedom were being fiercely muzzled.

Was the expression "Arab Spring" – a reference to the 1848 revolution known as the "Springtime of the Peoples' – a deceptive illusion from the outset? Or is it still too early to judge whether it is true or not?

At a demonstration against Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi in Tunis in 2011 — Photo: Olivier Corsan/Maxppp/ZUMAPRESS.com

If the comparison between that revolutionary European Spring of 1848-1849 and the Arab Spring of 2010-2011 is to remain legitimate, is it not because of their respective failures In Europe. It was not the Frankfurt Parliament that unified Germany, but Bismarck's Prussia. And, in France, it was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who was able to reap the benefits of revolutionary unrest.

In the traditional heart of the Arab world, in Egypt, after the very inconclusive experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the army regained control of the country, even more brutally than in Mubarak's time. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi knows that he can count on the mixture of fear of radical Islam and the mercenary appetites of many Western countries to weld friendships that ethics should condemn, but that politics encourages.

The Western world has been providing impressive examples of its ethical contradictions in its relations with the Middle East and North Africa for decades. "Rather than being selectively and hypocritically moral, we might as well be universally cynical and uncomplicated," say proponents of this realpolitik. "International politics is not for simple souls: sensitive minds should abstain."

That original and sincere hope shared by many observers and participants — those who are not resigned to seeing the majority of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa condemned for eternity to stigma, corruption and violence — seems to have been swept away by the test of time. But history cannot support those who claim it is dangerous to believe that the idea of progress can be applied to this part of the world.

From Cairo to Algiers, simply resigning oneself to the fact that the reign of the "kleptocracy" extends and consolidates itself in the name of the struggle against Islamism is not only a sign of excessive weakness, but an irresponsible risk in the long run. Western countries have stronger "levers' at their discretion than they might think. It is not a question of whether or not to receive Sisi in Paris, as French President Emmanuel Macron did recently.

The Western world can still make a difference.

We cannot passively accept the argument of sovereignty from regimes that tell us — playing on an indignation fueled by historical references — that "we have no right to interfere in their affairs." Those "affairs' are, especially for the European countries, so geographically close to our own. To be convinced of this, one need only see the Egyptian-Scandinavian film "Confidential Cairo," a vitriolic denunciation of corruption in Egypt set on the eve of the January 2011 uprising.

If civil society can no longer express itself in a society infected with corruption, if human rights organizations are treated as terrorist organizations, then there is no longer any intermediary between the security forces and radical Islamism. And this constitutes a clear danger for the region and those, like ours, that are close by.

Cynicism and self-interested passivity are counterproductive. They constitute a form of "after me, the flood" that is reprehensible on all levels: political, security and ethical. Yet the Western world can still make a difference.

The United States, even though it has been withdrawing from this region for the past 12 years, can still make a difference; not by sending more of its soldiers, but by imposing much stricter conditions on the allocation of its aid. Europe, if it can agree on a policy, can do the same. No, the Middle East and North Africa must not be condemned to an eternal winter.

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Geopolitics

Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.


The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.

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David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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