H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington.
The events of the past few weeks in Sudan and Algeria have led to many wondering if we are witnessing the birth of another Arab Spring – version 2.0. Others have argued that’s a rather simplistic frame, insisting Algeria and Sudan have their own local particulars and specifics that explain the situation far better. It may be they are partly both right – but in both cases, the framing relies too much on recent history. These eruptions have their roots much further back than 2018 or even 2010. Indeed, these rumblings are arguably part of the Arab world’s story in modernity – a saga whose last chapter has not been told.
The BBC’s Orla Guerin recently reported that “some say that having broken free of colonial rule in 1962, Algerians are fighting for their independence all over again, this time from a hated and sclerotic regime." There is a poignant hint there, even though the roots go back further than even that. There is a basic element here of restoring autonomy to these populations – as peoples and as individuals. Or as I put it elsewhere, “the attempt to regain Arab autonomy and the freedom of Arabs to decide their futures.”
That “regaining” is not simply about 2019 or 2010 – or indeed 1962. Perhaps first and foremost it has to do with the colonial era, the transformation of these countries into postcolonial states, the political pacts that postcolonial elites put into place and how those arrangements simply did not work. What we saw in 2010 and 2011 – and what we see now, eight years later – all are what we can see of the rumblings under the surface. And under that surface is the sharp clash between the inherited structures of these postcolonial states, which were never built fit for purpose, coming to grips with the demographic realities of their populations.
Almost all Arab populations lived under colonial occupation in recent memory – and almost all of them now exist in states that were formed on the back of the rump colonial administrations that existed thereafter. The trauma of the colonial period has not been healed – nor that of the postcolonial one, which has resulted in the autocracy we see now.
None of that is “natural” or “better-suited” to the peoples of the region, despite what many apologists of autocracy and dictatorship may argue. The modern autocrat in Damascus owes far more to the colonial era than he does to any indigenous system of governance in the region. Alas, there are many in capitals around the world who find it convenient to insist that a strongman is needed to deal with the peoples of this region. It is a racist, bigoted argument and should be called out as such, but many political leaders of the region are quite comfortable promoting it. Indeed, many of the counterrevolutionary moves in the region happened precisely because they agree with that argument.
Constructing a meta-narrative around these countries of the Arab world is difficult because, indeed, they do all have their particulars. They weren’t all colonized in the same way, for example: France’s occupation of Algeria was very different from Britain’s occupation of Egypt. Sudan has had more uprisings in the past few decades than Egypt ever had, so claiming the Arab Spring came late to it is a bit disingenuous, as Arab rights activist Iyad el-Baghdadi notes. And yet, at the same time, there is a common thread throughout the Arab world, which is why, more than eight years after the uprisings in Tunisia and elsewhere, you heard Sudanese activists exclaiming the Arab revolutionary cry: “The people demand the downfall of the regime” (al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nidham).
In describing the region as the “Arab world,” one simply isn’t accepting a jingoistic interpretation of Arab autonomy that denies full cultural rights to the range of ethnic groups in the region, based on an Arab racial ethnicity that is narrow and chauvinistic. Rather, it’s simply a geographic reference. The region boasts many different ethnic groups, and on individual and group levels, autonomy for all with fundamental rights is a moral imperative. When we speak about Sudan, for example, we must speak of its Africanness, in a way that is surely different than Palestine’s relation to the continent or Egypt’s, for example, but denying Sudan’s Arab-ness is to deny its multifaceted and pluralistic set of identities, which are to its benefit.
It is why, incidentally, discussions around Jerusalem continue to energize the peoples and populations of the Arab world with such vigour. Jerusalem goes to the core of the notion of Arab autonomy in the modern era because it is such a major capital – and because the old city of Jerusalem remains under occupation, with so many Palestinians dispossessed, while an independent Palestine remains a dream deferred. Even in Algerian protests in 2019, you can still see the Palestinian flag flying.
When we then talk about the Arab Spring, or the Arab revolutionary uprisings (as I prefer to call them), we’re not talking about something that comes out of nowhere, nor even something quite recent. Rather, it’s the latest reaction to a political arrangement that simply doesn’t work. It’s an arrangement built on the edifice of the old colonial establishment, taken over by the post-colonial elite, but without radically reforming the relationship between the ruled and the ruler. On the contrary, in some ways the relationship even worsened, with those same postcolonial elites who railed rightly against the colonial overlords strengthening the systems of autocracy that benefited the colonial system.
And as the arrangement worsened, as the facilitation of dignity diminished and the intolerance of the ruled increased, a congruence of factors emerged – often related to poor economic benefits (but not always) – and an eruption took place. Today, many heirs of that same type of postcolonial elite remain. But so do heirs of the resistance against colonial occupation.
It’s important to focus on these events in the Arab world by taking a long view, just as scholars and writers such as the former foreign minister of Jordan, Marwan Muasher, or Palestinian journalist Rami Khouri emphasize. It requires us to take a long view into the past – to see the roots of these upheavals – and into the future. As Mr. Muasher says, revolutionary political transformation usually takes decades, not years. We all need to have strategic patience in that regard – inside and outside the region.
There is good news and bad news in this regard. The good news is that the forces of change are curving into a more positive direction, because to resolve the legitimate demands of these populations, accountability and the rule of law are essentially prerequisites. These populations are young; they need more avenues to realize their potential, not fewer. Autocracy cannot provide that – on the contrary, it stifles it, except for the few who benefit from elite dividends. That isn’t going to work forever.
The bad news is that the autocrats and dictators of the region know full well that they are the ones who stand to lose out in a more just system. And thus, they have a choice: fight it tooth and nail, or make themselves part of the long-term solution. As of yet, more of them have chosen the former – to disastrous effect. Those who have picked and will stick with the latter are likely to find themselves protecting themselves for a much longer period. Because clamping down on the type of dissent we saw in the region in 2010-2011 or 2018-2019 has one of these outcomes in sight: greater accountability between the ruled and ruler, or repression. The former is an arrangement that is durable. The latter simply sends problems underground, with a lot of damage in the interim – and the problems do return. They do not disappear.
Indeed, we’re likely to see people in the future proclaiming Arab Spring 3.0 – or 4.0 for that matter – until the peoples of the region live under governments that uphold their fundamental rights and allow them to feel a sense of ownership over and with those who rule. That, in the end, is the only kind of system with a long shelf life.