The Second Wave?

It is clear that while the momentum of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 had been arrested – and, in Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain, reversed or crushed – the root causes that brought them about still exist and have, in most states, not been addressed and are “burning embers under the ashes.”

Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Joshua Krasna (SAIS ’86), an expert on regional security and politics in the Middle East, recently completed a 30-year career in government service in Israel. He is currently a Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security, as well as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU’s graduate Center for Global Affairs. He served abroad twice as a diplomat (including in Amman) and was an Instructor and Team Leader in the Israeli National Defence College from 2015 to 2017.

The Legacy of the “Arab Spring” of 2011

The cascade of Arab Uprisings of 2011-2012 (known also as the Arab Spring), brought down four regimes – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen – and severely threatened two more: Bahrain, where unrest was put down by the intervention of Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces, and Syria, which descended into a prolonged civil war from which its regime, under President Bashar al-Assad, is now emerging intact.

The Uprisings had even broader effects in the region: Saudi Arabia and the UAE invested significant economic, political and military resources in preventing or rolling back popular movements (as well as containing Iran). They, along with the other monarchies frightened by the democratic and popular forces unleashed – and especially by their Islamist manifestations – hunkered down and enhanced their internal surveillance and security apparatuses. The conservative external intervention facilitated the military counterrevolution in Egypt, but also contributed significantly to the political stalemates in Libya and Yemen. In addition, it led to a major divide in Sunni Muslim politics: Turkey and Qatar enthusiastically supported the populists, especially the Islamists, and therefore became open foes of the Saudi-Emirati-led coalition, whose economic war against Qatar led to an even closer relationship, including a military component, between Doha and Ankara.

The 2011 unrest particularly destabilized Arab republics, whose legitimacy was less clear than that of many of the monarchies (certainly those whose dynasties claim religious significance), and who were less able to form a protective coalition. However, some of the Arab republics (Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Sudan, and Algeria) managed to escape the first wave of the “Arab Spring.” They escaped for differing reasons, but in almost all cases due partly to the existence of a significant national trauma in the two decades preceding 2011, which had led to major political change, civil war and/or violence, and thus to less appetite for additional turbulence.

More Arab Uprisings?

It is, however, clear that while the momentum of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 had been arrested – and, in Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain, reversed or crushed – the root causes that brought them about still exist and have, in most states, not been addressed and are “burning embers under the ashes.” These include: long-lived, aging, ossified authoritarian leaders and systems with unclear successions; youthful populations, exposed by the decentralization of information and of authority and through new media to “infection” by global trends, increased material and social aspirations, and a resulting crisis of expectations; persistent governance failure, the collapse of the “social contract” between the authoritarian regimes and their subjects, and the perception of the regimes as corrupt, predatory, indifferent, and in thrall to special interest elites; and, of course, the “cascade effect” and the example of others (e.g. in the “Yellow Revolutions” in the post-Soviet space).

For this reason, much ink has been and is being spilt regarding whether or not current developments in Algeria and Sudan – the second and third most populous Arab states after Egypt – constitute the Second Wave of the “Arab Spring.”[1] But what is clear is that the next wave of Arab Uprisings will not look the same as that of 2011. The lessons and precedents of the first wave, and of the intervening eight years, have been learned well by both the regimes and the peoples. Among them are: the ability of regimes to prevent their overthrow with the use of pitiless, large-scale violence; the significance of regional and international allies; the key role of the military in the success or failure of regime change; the danger of collapse into chaos and ungovernability; the criticality for the opposition of not being tarred with the brush of jihadism; and the need to take into account the phase after the popular revolution, in which coalitions, inclusive institutions, and capacity for popular rule have to be built. It is also well understood that the international community, much of which encouraged the First Wave in a mistaken sense of democratic triumphalism, is much more cautious in the wake of Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt, and especially the waves of both refugees and jihadi terror they unleashed. In addition, even in the established democratic states, authoritarianism is on the rise, so promotion of democracy is not a high priority for them. All these lessons and precedents may militate towards “pacted transitions,” which are negotiated between ruling elites and leaders of popular movements; in any case, they will lead to more deliberate and thought-out moves, with more attention to the endgame.[2]

Algeria: the Embracing Model

In Algeria, mass protest rallies began on February 22, 2019, after it was announced that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, who has been seen rarely and has not spoken in public after suffering a stroke in 2013, would be running for a fifth four-year term.[3] He is widely perceived to be incapacitated and to serve as a figurehead for an elite of aides and cronies – including his brothers Said and Abderrahim – known as “la Pouvoir” (the Power), who have reportedly not been able to agree on a successor to the ailing President. The public unrest is fueled – alongside chagrin at the humiliating, overt manipulation of the political process – by anger at unemployment, corruption, poor public services, housing shortages and economic suffering due both to the fall in oil prices and to mismanagement.[4]

Bouteflika then announced on March 11 – in a letter – that he had changed his decision and was not running for reelection. He appointed a caretaker government, and postponed elections planned for April 19, in favor of an independent constitutional commission which would function until the end of 2019, followed by a referendum and new elections. Demonstrators fear that the postponement of the elections is a ploy by the ruling elite to buy time to arrange a transition scenario that would ensure their continued power, and note that the proposal would leave Bouteflika in power for an undefined period. The demonstrations have therefore continued, calling for the president to step down at the end of his term on April 28.

It is worth noting that the median age in Algeria is 28 years old, and that well over half of the population of 41 million is under 30. This means that their memory of the decade-long civil war, which began when the military voided elections in which Islamists came to power and which ended in 2002 with tens of thousands killed, is not vivid, and deters them less.

The demonstrations are supported by different sectors of Algerian society, including students, workers’ unions, youth associations, human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and opposition parties. They also include: senior officials; former military and security officers, frustrated with steps taken in recent years to restrict their influence, including the dismissal of a dozen military officer last year and the dismantling in 2016 of the military Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) and creation of a new intelligence service under the presidency;[5] and international businessmen who have been prevented from maximizing their economic potential by the inner circles of power. The ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), announced on March 20 that it fully supported the popular protest movement: it, too, has felt sidelined in recent years. The more “establishment” figures are calling to “re-institutionalize” the country and to reduce the informal, opaque and fragmented nature of power, as well as the arbitrariness of decision-making processes.[6]

Most importantly, Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gaid Salah, having earlier expressed qualified support for the protesters, called (March 26) for Bouteflika to be declared unfit to rule under Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution. This would lead to appointment of the leader of the Upper House of Parliament as caretaker president for at least 45 days. Protesters view this proposal with suspicion, with some fearing that the proposed steps would fall short of the demanded systemic change, and are worried that the military is plotting again, as in 1992, to take control of the political sphere.

Both sides are refraining, so far, from much use of violence, and casualties have been extremely light. Protesters have even been reported to have raised banners bearing statements such as “the police and the people are brothers” and “Algeria is not Syria,” and carried flowers in an effort to confirm the peacefulness of their demonstrations.

The two sides are undoubtedly looking at the precedent of Tunisia, where success was achieved because the various opposition and civil society groups built a basis for cooperation and compromise, and the military remained in the barracks. They are also surely examining the precedent of Egypt, where the initial revolution was successful because the military withdrew their support of Mubarak, and therefore was seen as the “savior of the revolution,” while the counter-revolution was successful because the military lost patience and confidence in the civilians and took over.[7] 

Sudan: the Repressive Model

Sudan’s unrest began December 19, 2018, over price hikes and food shortages (the price of bread tripled), on the background of soaring inflation and an acute shortage of foreign currency, especially since the secession of South Sudan in 2011 that took away three quarters of oil earnings. The demonstrators – comprising middle-class professionals, unions and professional associations, women and youth – quickly shifted to calls for Omar al-Bashir to step down after thirty years of rule, especially in view of proposed constitutional changes which would enable him to run for another term next year. Bashir responded forcefully. On February 22, he imposed a nationwide state of emergency. He stepped down as leader of the ruling party, appointing a loyalist (and fellow wanted war criminal) in his place, and appointed a new government; dissolved state governments and replaced all 18 state governors with military and intelligence officers; banned unlicensed protests; established emergency courts; and deployed large numbers of security forces, which have fired on demonstrators with live ammunition – killing over fifty so far – and arresting thousands.

The president’s calculation appears to be that he can weather the current protests – and counter criticism within the regime – by shifting his base of support from his National Congress Party to the army and security forces. One indication might be the appointment of Defense Minister Awad Ahmed lb Auf as First Vice President, while he retains the role of Defense Minister. Alternatively, military and security figures might conclude al-Bashir has become a liability and act to remove him to damp down the unrest and either rule directly or insure their control over the transition. There are reports of dissent within parts of the security services, including some police units and the Rapid Support Forces, the successor organization to the notorious Janjaweed militias, whose commander recently called on the government “to fulfill its responsibilities to its citizens.”[8]

Regional Actors React

Other players also look at recent developments through the prism of the First Wave, and the lessons they learned shape their responses. The conservative, counter-revolutionary states most fear the contagion and cascade of unrest, and cooperate in defending regimes threatened by popular unrest through such means as financial assistance and political support. Egypt, for example, has been open about its unhappiness with developments in Algeria and Sudan, and has stressed their destabilizing potential.[9]

The activist posture of the Sudanese regime required more significant and overt external backing than the “capitulate-coopt” approach in Algiers, especially since al-Bashir is already much more isolated internationally. Khartoum has enjoyed early and firm support from its conservative regional allies. The regime received 300 million dollars in loans from UAE-based Arab monetary institutions; Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has taken a stand strongly supporting Sudanese stability as an integral part of Egyptian national security (though there has been tension between the two states in recent weeks on border and water issues). Khartoum also seems to be playing off the contending regional camps against each other. Al-Bashir visited Qatar on January 23, his first foreign trip since the outbreak of the protests (he visited Cairo four days later). The regime has, over the past year, been developing its economic and military ties with UAE’s bitter regional rivals, Turkey and Qatar.[10] Both countries have promised tangible support to the Sudanese regime in the current crisis.

Russia is keeping a keen eye on developments, though so far it has defined the crisis as “a strictly domestic affair in a Russia-friendly country.” Algeria is Russia’s third largest customer for military equipment, and a long-time Russian friend and ally. Algeria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister visited Moscow on March 19; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov used the opportunity to express his concerns about alleged efforts to destabilize Algeria. Russian officials are reported to hope that Algeria’s government can adapt to new circumstances, implementing substantive reforms without losing control of the country.[11]

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov visited Khartoum on March 16 and met with al-Bashir. He stated that Moscow will support the Sudanese people and their leadership represented by al-Bashir to “overcome the current phase,” and has strong political will to strengthen its relations with Sudan, especially in the economic, political and military fields. Bogdanov noted that Russia will work to strengthen the defense capabilities of Sudan and will contribute to training Sudanese military and civilian personnel.[12] He extended an invitation by Putin to al-Bashir to attend the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019 (thereby tacitly signaling expectations his rule would continue). Earlier, during Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev‘s visit to UAE and Egypt in late January, he discussed with his hosts the need to continue to support al-Bashir.[13] Russia is developing military and political ties with Khartoum, which includes a recent agreement on using Sudanese ports for Russian naval vessels. Russian state and “private” security instructors are active in training security forces in Sudan, though both Sudanese and Russian officials deny reports that Russian contractors from the Wagner Group are taking direct part in suppressing the unrest.[14]

The Russian support for al-Bashir may reflect specific bilateral ties and a wider interest in expanding their regional footprint in Africa. But it also helps send other states in the region the message, already made clear in Syria, that Russia – unlike its rival – does not abandon its friends.

Conclusion (So Far …)

The two regimes and their militaries have so far adopted antipodal approaches from the 2011 “toolkit.” The Algerian regime is taking the path of drawing-out and apparent compromise, in the manner of Tunisia and of the original Egyptian military reaction to the revolution. The Sudanese regime is hunkering down, in a way reminiscent of Syria and Libya: Al-Bashir, under indictment by the International Criminal Court for genocide, may feel, like Bashar al-Assad, that he has little to lose by fighting to the bitter end. In both countries, the military is the key to the success of the popular revolution and the nature of the transition.

Every state and society is different; in the end, the immediate drivers for unrest are always local. However, simultaneous popular uprisings certainly do have a reinforcing, cascading effect. In both Algeria and Sudan, some demonstrators have been quoted as chanting “the people want the fall of the regime,” the motto of the Egyptian Tahrir Square revolutionaries. The situations in Algeria and Sudan are developing simultaneously, and each country is certainly aware of developments in the other. However, they are unfolding in extremely different societies in terms of level of economic development and of civil society structures (more different even than Tunisia and Egypt in 2011).[15] Algeria’s relative modernity, developed society (ranking 85th in the UNDP Human Development Index, versus Sudan at 167th)[16] and gas and oil reserves, as well as the strategy of the regime (or at least of the more powerful components within it) to embrace and try to channel the demand for change, all seem to favor its chances for significant change, though this may well fall short of a full democratic transition.



[1] George Washington University’s Marc Lynch notes that these events were part of “a broader sequence of popular protest movements that hit more than a third of the countries in the region over the past two years,” including major anti-corruption and anti-government protests in Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia and Iran (“Is the next Arab uprising happening in plain sight?” Washington Post (the Monkey Cage), February 26, 2019). Recent unrest in Gaza, with Hamas forces violently suppressing popular demonstrations, is also illustrative of the trend.

[2] Max Fisher.”Algeria Tests Path Toward Democracy in an Authoritarian Era.” New York Times, March 15, 2019.

[3] On April 2, 2019 – hours before this article’s publication – Bouteflika announced his resignation, and that the chairman of the upper house of parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah, is expected to become caretaker president for three months until elections. The central argument of the article, in both the author’s and editor’s views, are not significantly affected, though it is unclear how the situation will evolve.

[4] Growth was 0.8 percent in 2018, with a double-digit budget deficit and a breakeven price for oil to balance their state budget pegged at $105 a barrel, according to the IMF. Algeria is a major provider of oil and gas to Europe: it supplies more than half of Spain’s energy needs and over 15 percent of Italy and Portugal’s (John Defterios. “If Arab Spring Passed Algeria the First Time, it is Not Doing it Again.” Al-Bawaba, March 11, 2019).

[5] Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed. “Algerian Army Chief, Ruling Party Support Protesters.” Reuters, March 20, 2019.

[6] Michaël Ayari. Algeria’s Pre-election Protests Put Ageing Regime Under Pressure. International Crisis Group, March 7, 2019.

[7] Algeria, as Jean-Pierre Filiu of Sciences Po notes, is a “Mamlouk state,” that is, one of the military-based regimes which took control of Arab republics, a group which includes Egypt, Syria and Yemen. In such regimes, ultimate power rests with a strong military caste, with vested interests and a highly developed view of its social and political role (“Modern Mamlouks and Arab Counter-Revolution,” in Stephane Lacroix and Jean-Pierre Filiu, eds., Revisiting the Arab Uprisings. London (C. Hurst and co.), 2018, pp. 77-93). The current situation in Algeria, as Steven Cook of the Council of Foreign Relations notes, is extremely similar to that in Egypt during the 2011 revolution, when the military stood aside and its “neutrality” forced Mubarak to resign, in favor of a transitional military government (Steven A. Cook. “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up About Algeria.” Foreign Policy, March 13, 2019).

[8] Richard Downie. “Can Bashir, a Brutal Survivor, Ride Out the Growing Wave of Protests in Sudan?” World Politics Review, January 15, 2019.

[9] Khalid Mahmoud. ”What Sisi wants from Sudan: Behind his support for Bashir.” The Daily Star, February 19, 2019.

[10] Sudan and Turkey signed a lease in 2017 for a Turkish naval base on the Sudanese island of Suakin, and Khartoum subsequently signed a four billion dollar agreement with Qatar in 2018 to develop the port on the island, suggesting an extension of the Qatari-Turkish alliance to the Red Sea (“Bashir will survive as he firms up Sudan’s ties with Turkey, Qatar.” MENA English (Middle East and North Africa Financial Network), January 30, 2019).

[11] Giorgio Cafiero. “Russia’s Cautious Response to Algeria’s Deepening Political Crisis.” Lobelog, March 25, 2019.

[12] “Envoy: Russia to support Sudan to overcome current difficulties.” Middle East Monitor, March 18, 2019.

[13] Kirill Semenov. “Top Russian security officials tour Egypt, Gulf to discuss Syria, Libya.” Al-Monitor, February 5, 2019.

[14] “Why Russia is backing Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.” The East African, March 12, 2019.

[15] See Tarek Masoud. “Not Ready for Democracy: Modernization, Pluralism and the Arab Spring,” in Stephane Lacroix and Jean-Pierre Filiu, eds., Revisiting the Arab Uprisings. London (C. Hurst and co.), 2018, pp. 111-140. It is worth noting that Algeria has a high correlation between increase in level of educational attainment over the past forty years and joblessness rates, as well as a high level of income underperformance, which have been shown to be significant predictors of propensity towards protest and of instability in Arab countries (due to mismatch between expectations and prospects). See Filipe R. Campante and Davin Chor. “Why was the Arab World Poised for Revolution? Schooling, Economic Opportunities, and the Arab Spring.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 26 (2), Spring 2012. This can be especially relevant when unusual political developments create a focus of discontent and potential triggering events, such as that engendered by the incapacity of Bouteflika and his announced reelection campaign.

[16] “Global Human Development Indicators.” United Nations Development Programme, September 14, 2018.

Dr. Joshua Krasna
Dr. Joshua Krasna

Dr. Joshua Krasna (SAIS ’86), an expert on regional security and politics in the Middle East, recently completed a 30-year career in government service in Israel. He is currently a Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security, as well as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU’s graduate Center for Global Affairs. He served abroad twice as a diplomat (including in Amman) and was an Instructor and Team Leader in the Israeli National Defense College from 2015 to 2017.