Giant popular uprisings in Algeria, Sudan and beyond are a fresh eruption of the processes that set the Arab world alight in 2011, reports Susan Ram
As the favoured media metaphor has it, the Arab Spring is back.
Eight years ago, a chain or concatenation of revolutionary uprisings caught hold across North Africa and the Middle East, dispatching a line of despots from Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the west to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the east. The astonishing spread of these upheavals, and their speed of travel, seemed unprecedented in recent times. From the lighting of the match in Tunisia in December 2010, the flames spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Oman, Jordan and Syria in the space of just three months.
The ways in which these popular revolts evolved and manifested themselves also captured international attention. Mass mobilisations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, for many the epicentre of the revolt, seemed to embody something new: a “communism of movement” (Alain Badiou) encompassing fighting, barricading, camping, debating, cooking, and tending the wounded. For some commentators on the left, this was an augury of progressive things to come, a playing out, in the Arab context, of the ‘new’ politics embodied by the movement of the Indignados in Europe and of Occupy Wall Street across the Atlantic.
Within a couple of years, however, it was clear that little had effectively changed in the institutions and elite power bases of the Spring-tossed Arab states. Police, army and judiciary; state-controlled media; entrenched, systemic corruption: all remained more or less intact. States of emergency and other repressive measures were clamped in place to see off further dissent. In Egypt, military rulers had imposed a ban on strikes and brought more than 12,000 activists before military tribunals; by the summer of 2013, the counterrevolution had installed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s ruthless new overseer, enthusiastically backed by Washington and its allies. In Bahrain, King Hamad had brought in troops from neighbouring Gulf states to crush dissent. In Libya, Nato-led military intervention provided another mechanism to stymie or corral the Arab revolutionary process.
The current resurgence of revolt, beginning in December of last year and now engulfing a swathe of countries from Algeria to the Sudan, is once again exposing the wobbly foundations of Arab despotisms and the strategy of their Western enablers. Across the greater region, underlying processes rooted in historic crises continue to play out, reproducing the conditions in which millions of people are prepared (or have no alternative but) to take to the streets.
The giant protests currently shaking Algeria and Sudan are a significant feature of this fresh vernal eruption. Significantly, neither country played a frontline role in the events of 2011.
When demonstrators in Algiers and other urban centres began taking to the streets eight years ago, the regime headed by Abdelaziz Bouteflika had little difficulty seeing off the threat. As early as February 2011, the government drew on its substantial financial resources as a major oil and gas producer to hike public spending by as much as 25%. The extra funds went into higher subsidies, social housing and public sector wages and employment: all measures designed to placate the population. Collective memory of the civil war of the 1990s, the ‘black decade’ in which more than 200,000 people lost their lives, was an additional factor contributing to the limited expression of the Arab spring in Algeria.
Despite this buying of time, the Bouteflika regime – sclerotic, authoritarian, profoundly corrupt and wracked by scandal – has since 2011 proved incapable of the systemic change required to defuse a building crisis of hegemony.
The regime’s heavy reliance on the national oil and gas industry (exports to Europe have in the past contributed 60% of the state budget, along with 97% of export revenues) had devastating consequences when in 2014 the price of oil began to fall on world markets. After losing 30% of its total budget, the government in 2015 resorted to austerity measures while seeking out foreign investors and extending reserve privatisation. By 2016, risk assessors and the global financial media were predicting dangerous times and mass dissent ahead.
Incapable of responding to popular needs and growing desperation, the regime and its moribund head (prior to his recent ‘retirement’ in the face of mass protests calling for him to go, Bouteflika had not appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013) have simply staggered on, lashing out at times to suppress the right to strike, dilute the Labour Code, and engage in arbitrary arrests. Unemployment currently stands at 11.7% of the active population, reaching close to 30% of young workers aged 16-24. Graduates confront a severe lack of job opportunities, while more than 40% of employees fall beneath the radar of social security.
And as Hocine Belalloufi, an Algiers-based activist in the Parti Socialiste des Travailleurs (PST) notes in a recent article,
The purchasing power of those in work, the unemployed, poor, and landless farmers, and small artisans and traders, is plummeting under the triple effect of price rises, the depreciation of the dinar, and stagnation in both salaries and pensions. The reduction of the state’s engagement in both education and health care has hit the destitute classes hard, as the authorities undermine what remains of Algeria’s welfare state.
This is the context in which Algerians in their hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets.
Two thousand miles to the east of Algeria, the 30-year blood-saturated rule of Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) is currently confronting its own existential crisis. Beginning in the city of Atbra on December 19 of last year, huge demonstrations rapidly took hold in urban centres across the country, their demands moving swiftly from economic relief to an end to Bashir’s butcher regime: as a popular slogan puts it, tasqut bas (‘just fall – that’s all!”)
Back in 2011, decades of civil war were among the factors contributing to Sudan’s non-participation in the first Arab Spring. South Sudan gained formal independence from Khartoum in July of that year, taking with it the bulk of the country’s oil reserves and revenues. The resulting economic shock was not something a regime rooted in corruption, kleptocracy and extreme repression could respond to -- other than by bowing to pressure from the International Monetary Fund and imposing an austerity programme. The day after Bashir announced a rise in fuel prices in September 2013, thousands of protestors took to the streets; more than 170 people, including women and children, were slaughtered by security forces.
In the Sudanese context as elsewhere, IMF-backed austerity has had a savage impact on people’s lives. Wheat and other food subsidies have been slashed, while inflation has surged to eye-popping levels (70% is the most common estimate). While overall unemployment is estimated at roughly 12%, the figure rises to more than 27% among young people.
The economic plight of much of the population has been further worsened by the devaluation of the Sudanese pound in October 2018, which triggered wildly fluctuating exchange rates and a shortage of cash in circulation. Working people obliged to join long queues for basic necessities have watched their purchasing power shrink before their eyes. All are aware of Sudan’s industrial-scale corruption, its tentacles extending deep within the banking sector, where fake credit and investment loans are routinely granted to senior members of the ruling party.
As in Algeria, then, the dimensions of the crisis in Sudan are such that hundreds of thousands of people have no option but to take to the streets.
Taking things forward from 2011?
As protestors transform their despair, frustration and anger into action in this new spring offensive, what might they achieve? Are we seeing simply a reprise, in new locations, of what was attempted back in 2011? Or will those now rising up against dictatorial rule, imperialist-endorsed economic misery and the absence of anything resembling democratic space go further? Can they carry their struggle beyond the toppling of despots towards the creation of new types of society?
As it joined the Algerian uprising earlier this year, a trade union local in the historic workers’ bastion of Rouiba-Reghaia, in eastern Algeria, presented the challenge thus:
“We add our voices to say yes to a systemic change, a system that preserves the people’s inalienable ownership of the nation’s natural resources, rehabilitates the state’s role in social and economic development, and fights against poverty and inequality. A system that sets itself apart from oligarchies, attributes fresh value to labour, and sets humanity at the centre of development. A system that guarantees individual and collective freedoms and the free exercise of union rights.”
Elegantly and concisely put, this constitutes the unfinished business of 2011.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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