On Wednesday night, the mood on the streets of Khartoum was infectious. I stayed up late in text-message conversations with protesters – a cross-section of Sudan’s young middle class – as their months of patient resistance reached a crescendo, finally pushing dictator Omar al-Bashir out of office on Thursday morning after 30 years of destructive, divisive, crippling rule. “It is like a reward we have waited our whole lives for,” one student told me.
Their giddy jubilation, as they faced down and won the support of the army and then of Mr. al-Bashir’s elite security force, was something I had not experienced since 2011, when Tunisia and Egypt and Libya enjoyed their joyous moments of popular sovereignty. Sudan’s democracy movement saw its own moments of heroism and tragedy, with its own inspiring leaders thrust into the foreground – such as Alaa Salah, the white-robed 22-year-old engineering and architecture student whose rhetorically brilliant speeches and songs inspired the crowd, and whose image seemed to have been painted by Delacroix. If she represents the next generation of Sudanese politics, then there’s great hope – assuming the looming presence of the army, which now holds “interim” power, and its equally bloody-handed leaders, can ever be dislodged.
But this is nothing like 2011. This time, the world was barely watching, at least until Thursday morning, and Western leaders were not jumping over each other to side with the people’s movement. Even though Sudan’s triumph follows Algeria’s equally jubilant mass uprising, which forced dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down on April 1 after two decades in office, the phrase “Arab Spring 2.0” is uttered only sarcastically – to point out the inevitable tragedies and setbacks that will follow these overthrows, not to encourage a wider shift to popular rule in a region that badly needs it.
That’s partly because the ugly after-effects of Arab Spring 1.0 are all too visible, blotting out more positive outcomes.
What captured most of the world’s attention until Thursday was not Sudan or Algeria, but Libya. There, General Khalifa Haftar ended a fragile moment of peace between Libya’s contending factions and destroyed his role as the West’s preferred putative Libyan leader by mounting an ill-considered military assault on Tripoli.
Libya remains trapped, at least for the moment, in a standoff between unpleasant options – hardline military rule or a simulacrum of the old corrupt dictatorship – which has led otherwise sensible people to speculate that it might have been better, in 2011, to have left Moammar Gadhafi in place, or at least for NATO not to have lent air support to the popular uprising against him.
We would have been monsters to have turned down the people’s request for protection against a dictator’s brutal vengeance, the argument goes – but at least there would be “stability.”
That argument has won the day in Egypt, where Western countries (including Canada) now overtly support and co-operate with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general who originally seized power in a 2013 coup, and now holds seemingly perpetual power through more or less undemocratic elections. Mr. el-Sisi has led a campaign of mass imprisonment, torture and killing on a scale worse than that of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator Egyptians rose against in 2011. That’s because he is seen, through the simplistic lens of overseas distance, as a source of “stability.”
Would the Middle East and North Africa be in better shape if its strongman dictators – its Gadhafis, Mubaraks, Ben Alis, Bouteflikas and al-Bashirs – had been kept in place?
The answer is easy to find: It is exactly what took place in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains in power in what some governments see as a source of “stability,” and the mass uprising against him was denied a victory, either through deliberate neglect or insufficient commitment from outside. The result has been a genocidal slaughter, often involving nerve gases and other chemical weapons, on a horrifying scale.
Is there any doubt that Moammar Gadhafi or Hosni Mubarak would have attempted something similar, if they had not been denied the means? Mr. al-Bashir has already overseen grotesque atrocities in order to maintain power. His regime – and that of defence minister Awad Ibn Auf, who now claims “interim” power in Sudan, hardly represents a clean break – is quite capable of similar vengeance.
The problem with the “stability” argument is that the strongman dictators are not just competent at keeping rogue militias, Islamist insurgencies and anti-Western forces at bay. They also keep progress and growth and human development at bay. The region, thanks to these figureheads of “stability,” suffers the worst human and economic development figures in the world. The majority of their people oppose them, and oppose their choke-hold on progress. We need to get behind the people in the street, and the educated, hopeful next generation – even if it means a short-term risk of instability.