Shahid M Amin
THIS fortnight saw the fall of two long-entrenched dictators in the Arab world, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Omar-al Bashir of Sudan. Bashir had been in power since 1989 and Bouteflika since 1999. But they were far apart ideologically: Bashir was an Islamist whereas Bouteflika was a secularist. Both rulers have been brought down after sustained public protests, and the respective military chiefs forced them to resign. In both cases, the army wants to remain in power till new elections are held. It looks like a repeat of Arab Spring of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, but this time the protesters are opposing any period of military rule and are insisting that civilian control be restored without delay.
Algeria won independence from France in 1962 after a bloody War of Independence. Bouteflika was a military officer in FLN that waged the war against France. He held the post of Foreign Minister for nearly 15 years. He was later found guilty of financial corruption but pardoned in an amnesty and went to live abroad. He returned in 1989 when the Islamic Salvation Front Party was poised to win the elections. The Army aborted the election process and a bitter civil war continued during the 1990s that caused the death of about 250,000 Algerians. Backed by the military, Bouteflika won the presidential election 1999. He promoted reconciliation at home and followed an activist foreign policy. Bouteflika won a second term as President in 2004.
Though he has had health issues since 2005, he secured a constitutional amendment to win a third term amidst accusations of election fraud in 2009. A ban on public demonstrations has continued since 1992. Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since 2014. That did not prevent him from seeking election in 2014 for a fourth term. The opposition parties boycotted the election. On February 10, 2019, Bouteflika announced that he would seek a fifth term as President. That sparked off the demonstrations that paralyzed the country, forcing Bouteflika to announce on March 11 that he would not seek a fifth term. The demonstrations still continued and under pressure from the Army Chief, Bouteflika finally tendered his resignation on April 2.
The public demonstrations in Algeria, as in Sudan, have been led by young people who have been using social media to secure coordinated action and bypass government-imposed restrictions. But the demonstrators fear that counter-revolutionary forces are not yet defeated. The Army has emerged as the most powerful institution in both countries. The technocracy remains in charge of daily management. But learning from the mistakes of the 2011 Arab Spring, the demonstrators have rejected violence or anything leading to a repetition of civil war. The Army too is reluctant to use force. There is no desire to seek foreign involvement. While the demonstrators are wary of army promises, they are determined to seek restoration of democratic rule through peaceful struggle. They received a boost from Algerian judges, who play a key role in overseeing elections. The country’s magistrates have announced that they would boycott the proposed July 4 presidential election, arguing that elections cannot be free if held under the same judicial framework and institutions of Bouteflika government.
In Sudan, Brigadier Omar al-Bashir had seized power through a military coup in 1989 by ousting the democratic government of Sadiq al-Mahdi. He later won three terms as President amidst allegations of fraud. In 2005, his government had to accept the independence of South Sudan, a Christian-majority area, after a long civil war. Another civil war took place in Darfur region in which over 200,000 people were reportedly killed, leading to charges of war crimes and genocide against Bashir at the International Criminal Court in 2009, the first time that a sitting President was so indicted. However, the African Union and OIC among others criticized the warrant of arrest against Bashir. Early during his rule, Bashir had allied himself with Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the National Islamic Front, and started to introduce Sharia law in northern Sudan. The two leaders later fell out and al-Turabi was jailed several times. Bashir banned political parties and curbed democratic freedoms. He gave refuge to Osama bin Laden till his departure for Afghanistan in 1994.
Over the years, public protests took place against President Bashir, led by the opposition political parties. Large-scale protests began in December 2018 and kept gaining momentum till his ouster by the Sudanese military on 11 April 2019. This time, the protestors were mostly young people, students and professionals. An unaffiliated non-ideological body, the Sudanese Professionals Association, took the lead in the demonstrations in which young Sudanese women played a crucial role. They have emphasized the peaceful nature of protests and sought to avoid clashes with the armed forces. Even after Bashir’s resignation, the protests have continued. This forced the coup leader General Awad ibn Auf, a former aide of Bashir, to step aside, to be replaced by the less tainted General Abdel Fattah Burhan. He has announced end of night curfew and release of political prisoners and vowed to ‘uproot the regime’. Opposition groups have discussed transitional arrangements with the military including the immediate creation of a civilian government in which the military would also have a role. Saudi Arabia has voiced support for the transitional council headed by General Burhan. Sudan has been an ally in the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.