A Second Spring? The Fragile Hope for Democratic Transition in Sudan and Algeria

The recent toppling of authoritarians in Algeria and Sudan have the potential to breathe new life into the hope of democracy for North Africa, years after the “Arab Spring.” Yet even as the Sudanese and Algerian people have appeared to have learned important lessons from the events of 2011, fundamental obstacles still stand in the way of democratic transition that echo the failures of the Arab Spring.  

By 2019, the eighth anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution, the hopes of the Arab Spring appeared all by extinguished. Within the span of a few years, popular movements that carried the potential to bring about dignity, accountability, and democracy for the people of the Middle East and North Africa were overwhelmed by renewed government repression and the new conflicts of the “Arab Winter.” Then on 2 April, Algeria’s Algeria’s 20-year president, Bouteflika, stepped down after mass protests over his planned 5th consecutive term in office. Nine days later, Sudan’s 30-year dictator, al-Bashir, was removed by the Sudanese military following months of citizen mobilization. Within weeks, journalists and pundits were already describing these twin revolutions as a “second Arab Spring.”

It’s not a coincidence that two nations, which largely avoided demonstrations in 2011, are now witnessing the toppling of some of the region’s most powerful strongmen. On the surface, the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings appear almost as a delayed second act to the 2011 uprisings, and even have followed a pattern similar to the cases of Tunisia and Egypt: the formation of peaceful and sustained popular mobilization, whose aims were made reality once popular pressure caused military and government structures to eventually turn on the regime. On closer inspection, however, the protesters who brought down Bouteflika and al-Bashir have learned important lessons from the Arab Spring—namely, that democratic transition does not stop with the removal of a single figure and the need for commitment to continue to put pressure on the state even through the transition period.

In Algeria, protesters have already set their sights beyond the immediate fall of Bouteflika, with peaceful protesters calling for the removal of the prime minister and interim president, figures which remain representative of the power structures of the Bouteflika regime. By turning out every Friday to insist on transparency and the inclusion of civil society in the transition period, including free and fair elections under reformed rules, Algerians have signaled that challenging  le pouvoir—or “the power”—goes beyond the removal of Bouteflika and instead requires a radical restructuring of state institutions and the electoral process.

Sudan faces perhaps more difficult hurdles—with the difference being the military’s forcible removal of al-Bashir and its significant control over the post-Bashir transition. In a situation that resembles the post-Mubarak military transition of Egypt in 2011, the Sudanese military and security forces have recently inflicted violence against protesters that have mobilized against the military junta, in the process jeopardizing the breakdown of military-protester negotiations. Despite this, protesters have maintained peaceful methods, and, like in Algeria, have continued to protest and call for a civilian-led transition, with a message that democratic aims would not be settled by the merely the election of another authoritarian figure with military support.

Neither outcome is guaranteed to end in democracy. If anything, the events of the Arab Spring show just how ingrained military and government power structures are in the region—and just how delicate democratic transition can be even after a given leader has fallen. In Egypt, a military coup in 2013 has resulted in a government just as repressive and violent as the Mubarak era; in Bahrain, a violent Saudi-led intervention resulted in the crackdown of political dissidents; and in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, conflicts whose origins are derived from 2011 continue to be waged with varying levels of intensity. The shadows of the Arab Spring’s failures loom large over Algeria and Sudan, both of which experienced their own horrific civil wars not too long ago, and whose current power brokers will be loathe to give up control to civilian administration. In this environment, the use of violence to maintain power is all too possible a reality under the transitional, military-led regimes.

So too do Algeria and Sudan face a different international community than existed in 2011, with the foreign policy emphasis on security over democracy and human rights—which already largely guided Western policy in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt during the Arab Spring—even more pronounced than it was eight years ago. Without external pressure to respect a civilian transition, military leaders in Sudan and Algeria might feel emboldened to violently crack down on protesters, knowing well how little pushback they will receive from the likes of President Trump or Italian strongman, Salvini.  

That is not to say that the Algerian and Sudanese revolutions are doomed to fail; in fact, the protesters who brought down Bouteflika and al-Bashir have already made great strides beyond what was accomplished by many countries during the Arab Spring, and have remained peaceful despite instances of military violence. These steps don’t guarantee a peaceful transition, but they send an important message that democratic, civilian government is the end goal of the revolution, and that citizens will not easily settle for the mere replacement of another autocratic figure.

No matter their outcome, the April revolutions reveal that the desire for rights, dignity, and freedom is still very much alive across the Middle East and North Africa—and always has been. Sudan and Algeria show that even under the most long-standing and repressive regimes, change is in fact possible, through the actions of the Sudanese and Algerian people themselves who dare to struggle for a better future. While the events of April may not yet point to a “Second Spring,” they do suggest that the Arab Winter, regardless of how long it lasts, will one day thaw.

Photo Credit: M.Saleh, CC BY-SA .40

Feigned Inclusion: On Egypt’s 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform

On November 4, 2017, Gamal Sorour died in an Egyptian prison after falling into a diabetic coma. He and eight other Nubian detainees had declared a hunger strike to protest their holding conditions only five days prior. The nine men had been arrested in September of that year for staging a peaceful singing protest in Aswan. To this day, the fate of these Nubian activists remains unknown as they face a slew of charges, including organizing a political protest and disrupting public peace, in an ongoing trial.

It should come as no surprise that these peaceful protestors were arrested in September 2017 for demanding their their constitutionally guaranteed right of return to their ancestral lands, from which they were displaced at four separate junctures throughout the 20th century in order to facilitate either the construction or expansion of the Aswan Low and High Dams. Neither should their treatment, nor their 18-months-long detention shock anyone familiar with the current political climate in Egypt. As has been widely documented by international human rights organizations, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has waged a notoriously brutal security crackdown since the summer of 2013, when the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces seized power from sitting President Mohamed Morsi.  

However, despite this overarching climate of political and social repression, the Nubian activists’ case stands out as another episode in a long history of marginalization and exclusion of Nubian communities from mainstream political, social, economic, and cultural life in modern Egypt—a process that has been dubbed by Nubian activists as “de-Nubianization.” A distinct ethnic community indigenous to the region between Upper Egypt and Khartoum in neighboring Sudan, Egyptian Nubians have long borne the brunt of a state that excludes them from processes of policymaking and political representation.

With the rise of Egyptian nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, mainstream nationalist narratives designated Nubian languages and culture as unrefined and incompatible with the modern era. This facilitated the marginalization of Nubians from key political and economic processes, as well as their negative and racist portrayal in national cultural products, as observed by scholar Viola Shafik: “Egyptian cinema has with few exceptions shown Nubians as ever-smiling, simple servants who speak only broken Arabic” (85).

These trends were all but exacerbated by the fact that Nubian languages are not, and never have been, taught in Egyptian schools—yet another demobilizing strategy aimed at distancing Nubians from any effective participation in political, cultural, and economic life in Egypt.

This is not, however, the impression one would get from watching the latest promotional video for the 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform, which launched Saturday, 16 March 2019, and vaguely promised to “incubate youth discussions and ideas through a series of events discussing various topics.” This conference falls under the umbrella of Egypt’s annual World Youth Forum (WYF), the first of which was held in 2017, “under the auspices of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.”

The video begins with a catchy drum beat, played with the hands of a black man whose face we do not see. Following a series of scenic shots of Pharaonic temples in Aswan, we cut to shots of two women, each of whom hands colorful balls of string to several Nubian children who joyfully run across idyllic Nubian landscapes. The rest of the video follows the journey of these balls of string as they move from hand to hand, eventually received by a number of Nubian women weavers, whom we see preparing ceremonial boat sails, woven with the logo for the conference. “Aswan is getting ready,” the English voiceover announces.

The organizers behind WYF have faced heavy backlash in the past for their manipulation of millenial-aimed buzzwords—“engage!” “act!” “change!”—in the service of a state sponsored project that clearly aims to present a less-than-accurate portrayal of the state of youth engagement in Egypt. A brief glance at WYF’s marketing materials makes it immediately apparent that this is an event geared primarily towards representing Egypt to the West as a progressive country that truly invests in its youth and seeks their inclusion in policymaking processes. In 2017, the promotional hashtag for the conference’s inaugural edition, #WeNeedToTalk, prompted a powerful social media counter-campaign that sought to shed light on the array of social and political issues curtailing Egyptian youth’s capacity to participate effectively in the public sphere, from vast wealth inequality to severely limited media freedoms, staggering levels of political prisoners, and widespread sexual harassment—to name but a few.

However, in addition to promulgating this hyper sugar-coated portrayal of Egyptian youth and society, WYF’s marketers also traffic in a narrative that manipulates cultural symbols in the service of their promotional aims. On first glance, the 80-second video promoting the Arab African Youth Platform appears to be a dazzling celebration of Nubian culture. There are striking, colorful shots of famed Nubian spices, beautiful panoramas of the Nile River and Nubian islands, and a marked focus on the music, craftsmaking, and bodies of Aswan’s inhabitants – women, men, and children alike. Although this is a welcome shift in the hegemonic visual narrative typically associated with representation of Nubians in Egyptian cultural products, it also betrays a troubling hypocrisy at the heart of the Egyptian state’s relationship with its Nubian community—a community whose political representation, access to social services, and basic human rights have been consistently denied at the hands of state authorities from the early 20th century to the present day.

To exploit the symbolic significance of Nubian culture in order to market a conference, organized by the very same state that has worked for decades to disempower Nubian communities, is characteristic of the current political regime in Egypt, defined as it is by striking contradictions.

On the one hand, President Sisi declared 2016 “the year of the youth” and called for the launch of WYF; on the other hand, he has imprisoned more youth than any of his predecessors (a monumental feat in and of itself). Moreover, although the Egyptian Parliament legalized the creation of the Supreme Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt in June of last year, it deliberately excluded Nubian MPs from discussions regarding the details of this legislation and continues to ignore activists’ calls for the implementation of Article 236 into the 2014 Constitution, which guarantees Nubians the right to return to their ancestral lands. In fact, as in Sorour’s case—and others’ cases—these calls are met with imprisonment, as well as state sponsored allegations of separatism and terrorism, tinged with racist anti-black sentiments.

Much like how WYF’s promotional materials portrayed a fabricated image of an Egypt that is welcoming of youth involvement; this new Arab and African Youth Platform has added an altogether new layer of promotional dishonesty. By manipulating Nubian cultural symbols to promote a state sponsored youth conference supposedly aimed at encouraging African-Arab youth engagement (whatever that means), conference organizers have attempted to represent a feigned appreciation for Nubian cultural symbols, one that finds no resonance either with state policies or with the actual lived reality of contemporary Egyptian Nubians.

Photo Credit: Divya Thakur

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

From Bosnia in 1992 to Libya in 2011, military intervention to protect civilians during war appeared to herald a new era — the era of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Now, R2P has all but collapsed in the wake of conflicts in Syria; does humanitarian intervention still have a future?

As an undergraduate student in the U.S., I spent my first summer of university studying in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the site of the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Walking through the streets of the once-besieged Sarajevo and standing at the site of massacre in Srebrenica, I found myself carrying a central question: where was the international community during this conflict? Why, for all their military and political power, was Europe and the U.S. unable to stop such a horrifying war until it was too late for hundreds of thousands killed?

It is a question that I wrestled with once again a year later in Jordan, while speaking to refugees on the Jordanian-Syrian border who had fled rebel-held parts of Syria. This time, it was the very people who had suffered the conflict themselves who asked these questions of me: where was my country — the United States — during the siege of Aleppo, the destruction of Homs, the chemical attacks in Damascus? Why had we watched while thousands died, and done nothing?

Fifteen years ago, mass violence in Bosnia and Rwanda brought a similar kind of soul-searching amongst the international community, culminating in the creation of the Responsibility to Protect in 2004. The resolution, the first true codification of humanitarian intervention, compels the Security Council to act in cases of “genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law.”

While limited, for example only allowing for military force as a last resort when all others options are exhausted, R2P had noble intentions: to make “never again” — a phrase born from the horrors of the Holocaust and revived following the Rwandan Genocide — a reality.

I believed in R2P, despite its flaws; and I believed in the use of R2P as a tool to shape a more peaceful, more responsible world. But in the wake of the failure of the international community to respond to massacres in Syria, as well as Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere, a resolution that seemed to show such promise now appears all but dead.

In writing on the theme “What to do when your dreams of saving the world are shattered,” I’ve returned to the central issue I witnessed first in Bosnia and Jordan: the gap between the moral responsibility the international community claims to stand for, and the consistent failure of the world – and the U.S.  – to uphold these same principles when it comes to stopping mass violence.

The End of R2P?

When the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus in August of 2013, the United States appeared poised to launch the kind of military action that had characterized previous NATO intervention in Libya and Bosnia. This would never occur: Obama soon backtracked from military strikes, in response to both U.S domestic opposition and paralysis in the UN Security Council. His decision has since been described alternatively as the end of R2P and as the “epic failure of our age.”

While there is little doubt as to the failure of the Obama administration in find a solution to the Syrian Conflict, this singular event should instead be viewed as a piece of a larger story — one that recognizes the repeated failure of the international community to act to protect civilians in Syria, especially in the early years of the conflict. Unlike in Bosnia or Libya, efforts to invoke UN-mandated intervention under the Responsibility to Protect have consistently faltered, even in light of well-documented cases of government war crimes and indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

This fault for this stalemate is often placed – not without reason – on Russia’s unwavering support of the Assad regime. Yet blaming Russia solely for the tragedy of the Syrian War obscures a far more fundamental, and potentially longer-lasting, issue at play: an eroding belief by the international community in the legitimacy of the West, especially the United States, to intervene on humanitarian grounds.

It is a belief that is unfortunately far from unfounded, given the historical misuse of intervention for regime change.

From the adaptation of the UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya as a vehicle for removing Libyan dictator Gaddafi to the long history of U.S interventions in Latin American nations and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Western military action has more often than not be in the service of security or political, rather than humanitarian, goals.

Using intervention as a tool for non-humanitarian ends served only to compromise the central character of the Responsibility to Protect: the morality of protecting civilians in conflict, and the moral imperative of the international community to act, by force if need be, in situations where these lives are threatened.

Rather than representing a new age of apathy to human suffering, international inaction in Syria instead should be viewed as the result of years of misuse, mistakes and misjudgments in intervention that have sapped the international community’s confidence in the responsibility of Western foreign policy, and the sincerity of its words when it claims to act in service to a moral cause. Through these decisions, the U.S. and its allies have undermined their own narrative as a responsible and positive force in the world, to the benefit of the “sovereignty-first” narratives of autocratic countries which seek to see humanitarian intervention drastically curtailed – or eliminated entirely.

The tragic result is in a newfound impunity for governments to abuse their people, supported by Russian and Chinese warnings of American regime change that have grown all the more persuasive in recent years, from Iran to Venezuela.

Those who suffer the most from this change are the people of Syria, Yemen, Libya and more, for whom international efforts to stop mass violence appear more and more remote of a possibility – the large fault of which lies on the shoulders of America, Europe, and their allies.

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

Nearly a three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust, twenty-five years after the Rwandan Genocide, and fifteen years after the Responsibility to Protect, and the world has still yet to learn the lesson that mass violence in any part of the world reflects heavily on us all.

In the wake of the Syrian failure, there is new imperative to rethink the shared responsibility of the international community in conflict – a responsibility that fully grapples with the failures of interventions in Libya and Syria, that strives to reevaluate why we intervene, and that acknowledges what we sacrifice when interventions are conducted to support geo-political goals.  

Saving humanitarian intervention requires rethinking foreign policy assumptions long thought infallible, in exchange for the harder task of recognizing how often intervention has been misused and questioning the doctrine of the modern era of foreign policy responsible. The success of the Responsibility to Protect in the post-Syrian War era depends on acknowledging these past misdeeds and striving not to repeat the same mistakes, in order to ensure that the world is better prepared to act when the next instance of violence arises once again.

Only then can we create a more responsible form of humanitarian intervention, and move closer to fulfilling the central promise of “never again.”

Photo Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Andre T. Richard, US Department of Defense. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.