As unrest sweeps away long-tenured rulers in Algeria and Sudan, there are lessons the new political generations there can draw from other transitions in the region since 2011.
The first lesson is that, despite regional ramifications of upheaval in any Arab country, the politics of unrest are essentially local. It might be tempting to see a domino effect in the pattern leading to the fall of the long-time leaders in Algiers and Khartoum. But Omar al-Bashir and Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s respective ousters had more to do with the realities of each country than cross-border trends.
Populations in Algeria and Sudan were driven by their own political, social, and economic factors the same way societies in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt rose against long-entrenched authoritarian systems years before.
There are caveats to that theory. Young crowds may get inspiration and encouragement from scenes of protesters in other Arab countries challenging the status quo. Also, it does not need a conspiracy theorist to figure out that some regional actors seeking wider influence can find in the protests an opportunity to settle scores with leaders they dislike. Regime change can appeal to global powers with interventionist agendas.
It remains true, however, that the most fundamental conditions for unrest are home-bred. Populations can put up with rulers who overstay their welcome, until a breaking point is reached.
In recent years, that time has come in many parts of the region. Authoritarians who clung to power for two or three decades, if not more, eventually outlasted their welcome.
The populations under their rule became unwilling to live with the reigns of old and ailing leaders any longer. Young people, in particular, came to see the continued presence of outdated political systems as a daunting obstacle between them and a better future.
But most importantly, socio-economic factors within their countries’ borders led them to that determination. That’s the second lesson new rulers should not forget.
In Algeria and Sudan, the economy gave way well before the demonstrators concluded that the old rulers had to go.
Socio-economic indicators provided the regimes in place with early warnings that should have prompted them to adjust the course of their policies, but regimes at risk of extinction have a tendency to stall.
They try to buy time even when time is scarce. Algeria’s bureaucratic statism combined with clan interests rendered the system unresponsive and let young masses down. The country’s undiversified economy could not adjust to the fall of oil prices from $100 a barrel in 2014 to $66 in recent months. Foreign exchange reserves fell by half and GDP growth slumped to less than one percent. The government could not bankroll its social programs.
Youth unemployment was at a rate of about 30 percent and half the population was less than 25 years old, so it was not difficult to predict that young people would be the first to object to the ruling class’s attempt to extend the reign of Bouteflika for a fifth term in office.
Sudan may have been more of an economic basket case as it struggled with an inflation rate of nearly 70 percent, a foreign debt level of about $50 billion, and hard currency reserves at merely seven weeks of imports.
With half the population under the age of 19 and youth unemployment at more than 27 percent, the ticking bomb was waiting to go off anytime. The discredited National Congress Party was out of sync with the demands of the young population. Its Islamist diktat no longer guaranteed the regime’s hold on power.
There are accelerators of the fire, such as the force of social media, the level of violent repression on demonstrators, and the ability of the rulers to read the writing on the wall.
The main protagonists, especially those trying today to hold onto the levers of power, should look at the lessons of the 2011 uprisings. They know that as the dust settles and as democratic transitions are set in motion, economics is likely to come back and haunt them, probably sooner than the inexperienced operators of regime change would have them believe.
The Tunisia case has shown that any transition, even if seemingly successful, will remain precarious unless accompanied by an economic recovery that creates jobs and revives growth – and that’s easier said than done. In the climate of demands and expectations that comes with revolutionary fervour, big-spending policies are going to be more likely than budget rigor. Such policies are, however, untenable.
The interim rulers in Algeria and Sudan may have their minds set on more immediate concerns. In Algeria, there are demands to prosecute corrupt businessmen and investigate allegations of ill-management in the national oil company. On the other hand, there are hints from Sudanese rulers that they see economic difficulties as pressing. Saudi and Emirati expressions of support for Khartoum have included pledges to expedite economic assistance to the nearly bankrupt country.
The military and security establishment in Sudan and Algeria will have to keep in mind the security risks inherent in power vacuums and unsecured borders. They should not commit the mistakes of the post-2011 Tunisian rulers who complacently let Islamist radicals wreak havoc on the country. It took major terrorist incidents for the new political class to realise that national security must be preserved even in a democracy.
These establishments should be allowed to continue doing their job of meeting national security challenges and the new generation of politicians should have its chance to gear the country towards democracy building and economic reconstruction.