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Opinions

A second Arab Spring brews in Sudan and Algeria

Thursday 11/April/2019 - 03:16 PM
Sada El Balad
Andrew England- The Financial Times

Omar al-Bashir deployed every trick in the dictator’s handbook in his battle to cling on to power before his own military finally turned on him.

During months of demonstrations، the Sudanese president imposed a state of emergency، appointed security officials to run the country’s states، promised national dialogue and deployed troops to shoot and beat protesters demanding an end to his 30-year rule.

But Sudanese people continued to take to the streets in vast numbers، putting aside their fears of the autocratic regime to vent their anger at years of oppressive rule and economic hardship. And on Thursday Mr Bashir became the second Arab leader this month to be forced from office; nine days ago the Algerian military stepped in to finally end Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year reign.

The two cases are distinct. For one thing، Sudan has one foot in the Arab world and another in sub-Saharan Africa; its people speak Arabic and the better-off have access to pan-Arab television stations; but it has extensive trade links with east Africa and، until the secession of South Sudan، its territory extended to the forests and savannahs at the continent’s heart. For another، the catalyst for the popular uprising in Algeria was the regime’s reckless decision to try to impose Mr Bouteflika on his people for a fifth term، even though the ailing 82-year-old has not spoken in public for six years. The protests in that North African state have also been overwhelmingly peaceful.

But there are common themes that will reverberate around the Arab world and should act as a warning to the region’s leaders as they take stock of these two momentous events. At the heart of the protests is the deep sense of disenchantment felt by youthful populations in a repressive region blighted by rampant unemployment.

It was that anger that triggered the popular uprisings that rocked the region in 2011. Many saw the so-called Arab spring as a failure. Conflicts erupted in Libya، Syria and Yemen that continue to inflict misery on millions of people today، while many Arab governments reacted by becoming ever more oppressive in their quest to quash even a whiff of dissent.

Leaders have also used the examples of Libya and Syria to stoke fear in their people and warn against mobilisation. But Sudan and Algeria have shown that angry populations will not always be cowed.

Experts have been warning for years that the root causes of the 2011 uprisings have not been addressed. Rather، a lid is being kept precariously on a simmering pot.

For years، Arab autocrats relied on “social contracts” to maintain stability، in effect using state pay-offs funded by petrodollars set against limited political freedom. But as governments grapple with rising debts، widening deficits and swelling، youthful populations، those contracts are fraying.

Food، energy and fuel subsidies have been cut across the region، pushing up living costs as youth joblessness soars. The Arab world has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate، with about 30 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds out of work.

The result is that households are being asked to make greater sacrifices with minimum political freedoms. And a better educated، more informed generation of young Arabs، armed with smartphones and filled with aspiration، is desperate for more equitable systems and better economic prospects.

It is a volatile environment that has led to protests of varying scale in Jordan، Morocco، Egypt and Tunisia in recent years as people’s sense of injustice at their political marginalisation by corrupt regimes is exacerbated by austerity measures.

The social pressures will only increase. The World Bank predicts that if current demographic trends persist، the Middle East and north Africa will need to create more than 300m jobs by 2050. Just to keep up with the region’s demographic bulge، the region needs to “create immediately” more than 10m jobs a year، it warns.

To be sure، governments have little choice but to belatedly push through economic reforms as their traditional models become increasingly unsustainable. But without political reforms and significant job creation there is a real risk that governments are merely sowing the seeds for the next Arab spring.

The immediate test will be how the militaries in Sudan and Algeria proceed. If they fail genuinely to meet the demands of their people and merely seek to preserve the despised regimes، they will only be storing up more problems for the future.

Edited by Rehab Sayed.

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