(March 12, 2019 / JNS)
When Syrian President Bashar Assad rose to power in June 2000, he found himself facing the “Damascus Spring,” waves of protests and public demands. Assad responded by throwing the protesters in jail (he didn’t need to kill them, as he did that a decade later). He explained that the “spring” was his favorite season because in the Middle East there is no spring, but rather a brief transition from winter to summer.
A decade later, many believed the Syrian president had erred: Waves of popular unrest flooded a number of Arab countries and toppled regimes previously perceived as strong and impervious to harm. Everyone rushed to cheer the “Arab Spring,” which they said would usher in an era of progress, prosperity and mainly democracy. Before long, however, it became apparent that the Arab Spring had become an Islamist winter, after Islamist movements, some of them radical, seized power in several of these Arab countries.
We know how the story ended. In some of these countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, the clock was reversed to where it stood before the protests erupted, as if no revolution had ever occurred. In Yemen and Libya, however, the central governments collapsed and the people there are still engaged in bloody civil wars.
Now, after an eight-year delay, a false Arab Spring similar to its predecessors is knocking on the door of the Arab countries it previously spared, chief among them Algeria and Sudan.
In Algeria, the masses have taken to the streets to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to vie for a fifth term in the country’s April presidential election. The 82-year-old Bouteflika, who is unwell and detached from reality, has spent most of his time outside the country for medical treatment after suffering a stroke six years ago. When he ascended to power in 1999, he was perceived as a savior. Algeria at the time had just emerged from a bloody civil war in which the army and the elites battled the Islamist movement. Although the latter won a democratic election, its representatives were booted from power by the army and its supporters, similar to the revolution spearheaded in Egypt by then-general and current President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. But years have passed, and the younger generation is demanding change.
Meanwhile, in Sudan, protests erupted two months ago following a government price hike on bread. Thousands poured into the streets and clashed with security forces. Dozens of people have been killed in the violence. But the unrest has persisted amid calls to oust 75-year-old dictator Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled the country for 30 years. As we know, the International Criminal Court at The Hague has issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity his military committed in Darfur.
At this point, the events in Sudan and Algeria look like a rerun of the Arab Spring of 2011, and it seems likely that Bouteflika and al-Bashir will both have to step down. We can already envision, however, what these countries will look like after these two leaders are gone: It will be exceedingly similar to Egypt or Tunisia, and a democratic dawn is most certainly not on the horizon.
Ultimately, the common denominator among all the dictators toppled during the Arab Spring was their old age and their failure to find powerful allies within the system to help them maintain their grip on power. This is the main difference between Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, who were both 83 when the protests broke out in their countries, and Bashar Assad in Syria, who was 45 at the start of the Syrian civil war. After Ali and Mubarak were ousted, however, the ruling apparatuses in Tunisia and Egypt, especially the militaries and social elites, regained control.
The Middle East still isn’t ripe for democracy. In the eyes of many of its inhabitants, the right to a slice of bread, a home, a living wage and protection from terrorism, supersedes the rights to freedom of expression, liberty and democracy. Still, economic distress in the region is growing worse, and the younger generation is losing any remaining hope for a better future. So unrest will continue to simmer beneath the surface, threatening to explode every time a ruler shows weakness.
It appears, however, that instead of leading the region forward, these demonstrations will only entrench the past.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.