Democracy movements in the Arab world

Look to Sudan, Algeria!

A watershed moment in Sudan: after 30 years of repression, a civilian-led government looks set to co-determine the country’s future path. It's quite a different picture in Algeria: here, the people have been demonstrating against the military for months, to no avail. By Khaled Salameh

Sudan and Algeria: in both nations, the military maintained a tight grip on power for decades. In both nations, civil society suffered greatly under decades of state repression. In both nations, the people are calling for justice and democracy.

But whereas in Sudan protesters have been able to reach agreement with the army, the mass protests in Algeria continue unabated. Hundreds of thousands of people take over the streets every Friday to show that even after six months, they have not given up and will persist until their demands are met.

The South African Institute for Security Studies recently determined that demonstrators in Algeria "have achieved much more than observers had predicted."

The rebellion's key achievement was the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in office. Instead of standing for a fifth term as planned, he stepped down and renounced a renewed mandate. A whole host of politicians and businesspeople long suspected of corruption were arrested.

But since then, the protest movement has not clocked up any further success. Algerians are still no closer to a genuine political new beginning. The regime led by Algeria’s Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah appears deaf to the demonstrators' demands. For example, the military man is calling for early presidential elections, while the protest movement wants to wait until Gaid Salah and interim President Abdelkader Bensalah have resigned. A request rejected by the regime.

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Army eschews far-reaching changes

The military wants to prevent constitutional debate and far-reaching structural reforms at all costs. Instead, it is pushing for new elections to be held as soon as possible. In a bid to break the political impasse, a "National Commission for Dialogue and Mediation" was set up in July. "We can't waste any more time," the 79-year-old Gaid Salah blustered and claimed, "all fundamental demands" by the protesters are now "entirely fulfilled", and that only the last phase of the presidential election was still open. The protest movement should give up "irrational demands", such as the resignation of all civil servants, he added.

One of the regular Friday demonstations in the Algerian capital Algiers (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Intransigent military blocking Algerian transition: Rachid Ouaissa, political scientist and Middle East expert, sees fundamental differences in the history and structure of the two nations' armies: "firstly, the Algerian army was legitimised through a revolution. Secondly, it is highly present in society." Enjoying the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Algerian military also maintains ties with the West, playing a strategically relevant role in the Mediterranean region and Africa

But the newly-formed dialogue commission is also rejecting this way forward and insists on the dissolution of the very same power circle that ruled the nation for decades alongside ex-president Bouteflika.

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that thus far, the popular movement has not appointed its own leadership to specify demands and take part in negotiations. And so, six months after the start of peaceful mass protests in Algeria, the political situation has become untenable.

Look to Sudan

Rachid Ouaissa, head of the Centre for Near and Middle East Studies at the Department of Political Science at the University of Marburg, holds the army responsible for the standstill. The military is not ready to give up its privileges, he says. But the path that Sudan has taken could also be an option for Algeria, says Ouaissa: "A dialogue between the army and the demonstrators, sharing power during the transitional phase to give the army the opportunity to gradually withdraw from political life, then a transitional government and finally, a constitution."

Sudan's new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok speaks during press conference in Khartoum, Sudan, Wednesday, 21 August 2019 (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo)
Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, is a seasoned economist who faces the daunting task of rescuing his country's moribund economy. Hamdok built a career in continental and international organisations, most recently as deputy executive secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa

Just a few days ago, the opposition "Socialist Forces Front" also called on the Algerian authorities and army to seek inspiration from Sudan in efforts to overcome the current crisis in Algeria. "The Sudanese example should encourage Algerian rulers to open a serious, inclusive, transparent and unconditional dialogue for a democratic transition. Necessary steps have already been taken to ensure the success of this dialogue, such as the liberation of political prisoners," read the declaration.

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Differences with Sudan

But despite all the similarities and Sudan's inspirational potential: there are profound differences between Sudan and Algeria, says Middle East expert Ouaissa. For example, the Algerian opposition  "is much more disparate than the Sudanese. Also, the army has managed to poach a portion of the opposition." The fact that the Algerian opposition is rejecting all outside intervention is also a problem, he adds. The Sudanese breakthrough was only achieved through foreign mediation. Negotiations were supported by Ethiopia and the African Union.

Primarily, Ouaissa sees fundamental differences in the history and structure of the two nations' armies: "firstly, the Algerian army was legitimised through a revolution. Secondly, it is highly present in society."

Unlike isolated Sudan, the Algerian military also maintains ties with the West and plays a strategically relevant role in the Mediterranean region and Africa, for example in Libya and Mali, says Ouaissa.

And, he continues, it is supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf kingdoms are not exactly well-known for being cradles of democracy. For this reason, leaders there will be keeping a close eye on the outcome of the democratic experiment in Algeria. After all, Ouaissa is convinced: a successful democracy in Algeria would certainly impact upon the rest of the Arab world.

Khaled Salameh

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2019          

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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