24 April 2019

Generals' intervention in Sudan and Algeria

Internal military intervention forced the resignation of Sudan and Algeria's longtime presidents in April 2019. And it is the generals who are now staring down the protesters whose actions precipitated this moment.

The removal from office of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria by their respective militaries' in April 2019 after weeks of nationwide anti-government demonstrations again underlies the centrality of the military in these states as one of the few "national" institutions to have the authority to force such events. They now face the dilemma of maintaining their primacy in the face of tens of thousands of emboldened demonstrators who pushed events to this point and continue to seek far-reaching reforms.

There was no one single cause for the protests in either country, but popular anger against the incumbent rulers exploded out onto the streets in part due to the perception in both countries that the fix was in to extend the terms of al-Bashir (in office since 1989) and Bouteflika (in office since 1999) indefinitely, and by extension, that of the status quo. In Sudan, the protests were preceded by months of smaller-scale unrest in 2018 driven by worsening economic conditions, but by 2019 also came to turn on the rejection of al-Bashir trying to extend his term to 2025. Bouteflika's effort to remain in office until 2024 amid growing economic stagnation was seen as especially egregious since the infirmed 82-year-old leader clearly lacked the physical and mental capacity to continue on.

Past protests in either the hinterland or centre could be brushed off without significantly changing security deployments or adjusting economic policy to appease protesters. In both countries, the protests indeed emerged out of urban areas neglected by the government - Atbara in Sudan, an industrial town on the Nile River, and in Algeria, the cities of the northern Kabylie region - but these quickly spread elsewhere, to the capitals Khartoum and Algiers and beyond, among both the middle class and urban poor. These protesters were not necessarily "pro-opposition," but rather, people fed up with economic stagnation and a political order that benefits an increasingly narrow class of apparatchiks - including the military top brass - in both countries. The demonstrations' intensity and scale made it harder for the government to make face-saving concessions or to crackdown, especially in Sudan due to worsening fuel, food and medical shortages.

Missteps by the ruling class also helped the protesters. Nighttime curfews were routinely ignored in Sudan, while in Algeria, a botched attempt to send protesting students home from school just led to more protests. Attempts at divide-and-rule also fell flat. In Sudan, protesters rejected attempts by the regime to blame the unrest on residents of the restive Darfur region, while in Algeria, mixed Berber-Arab communities have carefully avoided the revival of inter-communal disputes that could split the movement. The demonstrators' insistence on non-confrontational behaviour with the Algerian and Sudanese security forces meant that the regimes had to instigate the violence themselves or start making political concessions. While the Sudanese security forces did just that, killing dozens of people and arresting thousands more, both regimes also began to make some concessions in the political and economic spheres. Such concessions satisfied no one: to the military, it confirmed some of their privileges and wealth were now up for negotiation by the political leadership to save face, and to the protesters, it confirmed that their "dinosaur" presidents would remain in office until death absent new demonstrations and strikes.

At this point in both countries, the military leadership elected men to speak for them - Vice Minister of Defence Ahmed Gaid Salah in Algeria and Minister of Defence Awad Ibn Auf in Sudan - and signalled that it was time for Bouteflika and al-Bashir to step aside: Bouteflika submitted his resignation on 2 April while al-Bashir was put under house arrest on 11 April. That the Algerian and Sudanese generals were able to do all of this and triumph was due to the political power they wielded after years of helping suppress civil society. In Sudan, no other centres of power have been permitted to exist by the armed forces outside the intelligence services, with whom there is a long-standing rivalry, and al-Bashir's rubber stamp National Congress party. In Algeria, military factions have come and gone but always underwritten the fortunes of the presidential family, which under Bouteflika used them to rein in Algeria's fearsome intelligence apparatus, and well-connected businessmen. The generals' actions in both countries indicate a willingness to more explicitly assert institutional control.

In deciding not to directly intervene in the unrest at the start, the Sudanese and Algerian militaries' preserved their ability to act as arbiters.In January and February 2011, for example, the Egyptian armed forces kept apart from the unrest in Cairo as much as possible, not stopping the internal security forces' from clashing with the protesters but also not coming to save these units when they were overwhelmed by the scale of the protests. This allowed the Egyptian military to preserve its image as a "national" institution on the side of "the people" and to compel then-president Hosni Mubarak to step down in favour of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This process has mirrored itself in Sudan. Faced with the imminent prospect of conflict between the secret police and rank-and-file soldiers over the suppression of the protests, Sudanese generals decided to instead "retire" their commander-in-chief; some of the political leadership of the ruling National Congress party was sacrificed to this end, too, and a Transitional Military Council was formed.

In contrast, there have been no confrontations between police and soldiers to speak of in Algeria. Both the armed forces and internal security units were in the first place reluctant to even let matters reach that point - as they did in Sudan - for fear of sparking mutinies or giving an opening to the old Islamist opposition, which has been sidelined since the end of the civil war. But while political leadership has devolved to other civilian officials from the National Liberation Front (FLN) and "loyal opposition" parties in Algeria in accordance with the constitution, the military retains its longstanding capacity to intervene in the selection of leadership candidates and is willing to use force to disperse demonstrations if the police will not.

Looking back to Egypt, however, as demonstrations continued for months on end, the military began to lose patience with protesters. The first major act of violent repression took place in October 2011 and further clashes continued for the next two years leading to the July 2013 coup that overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government; dozens of demonstrators were killed in crackdowns associated with the putsch. The protesters in Sudan and Algeria recognise this danger and specifically cite the Egyptian example, where the military mobilised counter-protesters to split the movement, as reason to remain on the street and united. Strikes and protests are set to continue, especially in Sudan where the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) has emerged as the driving force behind the demonstrations to maintain a broad front; Algerian protest leaders have done so as well in concert with student and trade unions there. The example of Tunisia offers the organisers some hope, where an initial attempt by ruling party stalwarts to manage the transition from the deposed Ben Ali in 2011 was chipped away bit by bit by the demonstrators' stubborn refusal to disperse. It remains to be seen if the Sudanese and Algerian militaries will accept a similar humbling given the power and wealth they would have to delegate back to civilian control if they truly heeded the protesters' demands, unless they can fracture the opposition in the transition era as the Egyptian military did. What makes this tactic more difficult to pursue today is that the Sudanese and Algerian oppositions also know of it. They have only to look across their borders to see where that ultimately landed those factions: in jail, exile or worse, hence, "Either we win, or we become Egypt."

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