A New Arab Spring?

Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s immunity to the protests that swept the Middle East in 2011 always seemed a little surprising. There was no obvious reason why the protests that rocked North Africa should skip Algeria. Bouteflika’s fall earlier this month and the subsequent fall of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir raise an important question: are we seeing the resolution of unfinished business from 2011, or are we seeing a second “Arab Spring”?

There are many parallels to 2011. In both Algeria and Sudan, young populations rose up against the only leaders they have ever known, enraged that corruption and cronyism were robbing them of their future. Protests swelled every week until they could no longer be contained. The protests in Algeria and Sudan, like the protests of 2011, were not the work of opposition politicians, because part of the rulers’ longevity was ensuring that no alternative emerged. Instead, they represented a largely spontaneous and leaderless “no” vote on the status quo. Citizens were taking a leap into the dark.

But the dissimilarities to 2011 are larger than the similarities. First, while protesters’ aspirations may be the same, their expectations are lower. It is hard now to recall the bubbling confidence then: democracy was at hand, and selfless citizens, guided by Facebook polls and patriotism, could reshape the politics of their countries. In the years that followed, Egyptians’ bitter experience with Muslim Brotherhood rule and the resurgence of jihadi groups throughout the region reinforced how uncertain democratic progress is. Looking back eight years, we see now that the 2011 protests gave birth to a single, still-struggling democracy in Tunisia while sparking still-smoldering civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. What was once considerable enthusiasm for change in Egypt and Bahrain has all but died, and the security services there came roaring back. The fall of strongmen in Algeria and Sudan did not elicit the same euphoria that the Arab Spring protests did, because crowds in the street realized how much hard work still lays ahead of them.

Second, the Algerian and Sudanese militaries have asserted firm control over the situation in each country. Conditions are more akin to a military coup than a popular revolution. Militaries intervened before chaos emerged on the streets, and they are presumably prepared to act to prevent chaos from emerging.

Third, the regional enthusiasm that marked the 2011 events is absent. One reason for this is that Al Jazeera, which played such an important role framing the 2011 uprisings as a series of democratic revolutions bringing down tyrannies, is tangential to this month’s events. This is in part because Al Jazeera is less fresh and daring than it once was. But audiences also seem more skeptical of the channel’s often clear editorial line, and regional hostility to Qatar has bred resistance to the country’s flagship effort at public diplomacy. Perhaps the biggest reason is that television itself has a diminishing ability to mobilize regional solidarity, as the ubiquity of social media—which was still in its infancy in 2011—fractures audiences within and between countries and creates a certain numbness toward issues that don’t affect people’s daily lives.

Those three differences—more modest expectations, military control, and an absence of regional fervor—have diminished international interest in these events. The whole world was watching in 2011, and presidents and prime ministers rushed to embrace the protesters and give them legitimacy. Protesters were named Time magazine’s person of the year. It was a different time. Today the question on the mind of policymakers is not how to help the protesters gain control, but rather how to help ensure that their countries do not descend into chaos.

Even so, it would be a mistake to assume that the falls of Bouteflika and Bashir are merely isolated incidents. Algerian and Sudanese protesters seized on conditions that continue to prevail throughout the Arab world, and in most cases, they have not improved since the events of 2011. Corruption of every sort remains rife, economic conditions are worsening, and young people look with a combination of anger and envy at government officials. Broad parts of the public continue to see the political class as both unaccountable and indifferent to their citizens’ fates.

Gone are protesters’ seemingly quick-fix solutions of political Islam or virtual democracy that inspired so much broad optimism in 2011. But the protesters’ difficulty articulating a path forward does little to blunt the anger and impatience that hundreds of millions of Arabs feel.

Governments are alert to the challenge. They are seeking to streamline governance, respond quickly to complaints, and increase transparency. Many are furiously seeking to create private sector jobs, getting young people off the street without creating a 30-year obligation of government paychecks. What they are seeking to do, though, is to create generational change in the face of daily threats. It is a tall order. Increasing competitiveness often requires lower wages and longer work days, higher taxes and lower subsidies. All of those hurt in the short term, and many of those measures fall heavily on the most vulnerable.

It is unlikely that Algeria and Sudan are the harbingers of a new set of Arab uprisings sweeping the region. The conditions do not seem ripe. At the same time, they are a reminder that the seeds of future uprisings have been planted from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Even though they lie dormant in the soil, with a steady spring rain, they can germinate quickly.

(This commentary originally appeared in the April issue of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program