Pete Townshend may not appear, at first glance, to be connected to the tumultuous events in Sudan. But it was the Who’s lead guitarist who famously celebrated popular insurrection in the 1971 hit, Won’t Get Fooled Again, whose lyrics he wrote. Here’s how a bit of it goes: “I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution/ Take a bow for the new revolution… Then I’ll get on my knees and pray/ We don’t get fooled again.”
After inducing the army to oust Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s unpopular president, well-organised opponents of the military regime, evidently no fools, are not trusting solely to prayer. On Friday, they forced the resignation of the coup leader, Awad Ibn Auf. Now they wait, camped on the streets, to see if his replacement – another general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – can satisfy their insistence on civilian-led government.
It’s plain that Sudan’s military-security establishment, which has held power, largely unchallenged, for 30 years, has scant idea how to deal with the non-violent mass protests that have overwhelmed Khartoum and other cities in recent months. Many demonstrators are young and middle class. Many are women. Their movement spans the political and social spectrum, neither religious nor overtly ideological.Sudan’s generals are accustomed to calling the shots, literally. Now they confront an entirely new challenge. The world is watching. They know they cannot – and many of their soldiers will not – use force to end the turmoil. Their guns are effectively spiked.
So they must negotiate, knowing any talks could entail their removal – swiftly followed by judicial retribution of the kind Bashir, arrested in his palace, now faces. But it could all still go badly wrong.While the army has no plan, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which has spearheaded the protests, clearly does. Its manifesto, the Declaration of Freedom and Change, demands a “national transitional government formed of qualified people based on merit, competency and good reputation”. Its main aim, it said, was to establish “a sound democratic structure” so that free elections could be held.
Evidently rattled, Omar Zain al-Abideen, spokesman for the military council now led by Lt Gen Burhan, said the army had “no ambition to hold the reins of power” any longer than necessary. He called for a national dialogue with “all political forces”. But the demonstrators are maintaining pressure. Buoyed by what it termed “a triumph of the will of the masses”, the SPA called for a “total strike until the full transfer of power” was achieved.
Revolutions rarely end happily – and it remains to be seen whether the Sudanese can make theirs stick. Algerians, for example, will be following events closely. Similar demands for root-and-branch reform ignited this month’s upheaval in Algiers in which Abdelaziz Bouteflika, another elderly president who outstayed his welcome, was defenestrated by popular demand.
Unlike Khartoum, civilian politicians remain in control in Algiers. But the fear there, too, is that the “system” will not change. The army’s top general, Ahmed Gaid Salah, has backed a Bouteflika crony as interim leader, pending new polls. Salah warned protesters last week against making “persistent, unrealisable demands”.Advertisement
Looking east, it can be safely assumed that most Libyans would also prefer inclusive, democratic government to the political, ethnic and geographical fragmentation that has shattered the country since Muammar Gaddafi’s demise. But a military offensive against the UN-backed government in Tripoli by another out-of-control general, Khalifa Haftar, has dashed hopes of a path out of the quagmire.
All three north-African crises point to a widening gap between ordinary people’s needs and entrenched ruling elites. All three countries have youthful, expanding populations – for example, half of Algeria’s 42 million population is age 27 or under. Expectations centred on good jobs, education, economic opportunity and more open, democratic governance are growing irresistibly.
Yet a contradictory, parallel trend, from which north Africa suffers along with the rest of the world, is the latest fashion for “strongman” leadership. This entails autocratic or authoritarian rule that promotes nationalistic, intolerant views and subverts the rule of law, individual liberties and free speech. Strongman rule has gripped the US, Russia and China. It finds willing emulators across the Middle East, from Turkey and Israel to Egypt and the Gulf.
Not content solely to dominate their own countries, authoritarian leaders typically seek to manipulate others, too. Thus the unelected rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are backing Haftar in Libya, seeing in him a kindred spirit. Both countries also backed Bashir and are doubtless eager to ensure his successors keep faith. Ranged against them in a battle for influence in Khartoum are the autocratic leaders of Turkey and Qatar.
Donald Trump’s America and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel also have skin in this game. Their top priority is continued counter-terrorism cooperation, not democratic reform. Behind-the-scenes US pressure may help explain Friday’s sudden resignation of Awad Ibn Auf. Previously accused by the US of complicity in genocide in Darfur, he was not a leader Washington could respectably do business with.
Sudan’s pro-democracy movement must thus overcome not only the military-security elite but also the meddling of foreign “strongmen” who back it for selfish ends. It’s an uphill battle to ensure they don’t get fooled again.