The Arab Spring lessons that the Sudanese may need to heed

The Arab Spring lessons that the Sudanese may need to heed
Comment: The time has come for change in Sudan, but the forces of change must learn from the other Arab uprisings, writes Dr Azmi Bishara.
10 min read
20 Jan, 2019
A government decision to raise bread prices a month ago has sparked mass protests [AFP]

Arab leaders often remind their people about failed Arab attempts to change regimes, as part of their zero-sum equation of "either me or chaos".

They want their people to surrender to the status quo, by deploying a demagogical discourse that conflates causes with results, and that lacks a bare minimum of rationality. In this discourse, the failure of regimes to meet the aspirations of their peoples is portrayed as the failure of people.

This is the discourse of regimes which have aged a thousand years in the brief era of Arab revolutions, and which now live on borrowed time. They blame the sins of the rulers on the people not only for daring to protest their conditions, but also for daring to have the audacity to hope, and require people to snuff out every other virtue within them.

The regimes have committed unforgivable sins by bloodily resisting the natural course of history. Yet the movement of social and political forces aspiring to change have suffered from a lack of experience, and were drawn into one-upmanship. They made catastrophic mistakes and bad wagers during the uprisings.

The goal of drawing lessons is therefore to rationalise any future movement for change.

Regardless of the intellectual, political and social background of the political actors in Sudan, all those concerned with the cause of change among them, whether in the ranks of the opposition or even the ruling elites, must heed the lessons of the Arab uprisings and their outcomes, including the shortlived and limited experience of democratic transition that was thwarted in Egypt - due to both internal factors and the intervention of regional states - and the still-consolidating democratic transition in Tunisia.

The best option depends to a large degree on the wisdom and awareness of the elites in power and the opposition

True, circumstances differ between one country and another, and events do not follow the same course. But it is important to benefit from the lessons learned. Without describing discursively the fateful time through which Sudan is currently living, and the difficult living conditions of its people, here are some of the lessons from the Arab Spring of which any democratic force in any Arab country must be aware:

First: When the spontaneous popular uprising seeking social change and protesting against injustice expands, and becomes more radical in its demands - up to calling for the downfall of the regime - and receives sufficient and sustainable support, it may come to one of the following non-exclusive conclusions:

A)     The spontaneous character continues to dominate, leading to undesirable outcomes, such as fatigue and dispersion, in the face of organised repression; or the escalation of protests to the point at which the ruler is toppled if cracks emerge in the ruling echelons, and the army takes sides or remains neutral. In the latter case, the crisis will not have been resolved by this, because the army could show an appetite to seize power, if no clear and organised revolutionary legitimacy emerges with clear leadership, or organised political forces which can undertake this role and occupy that position, and if the opposition is not united around a political programme for power transition.

B)     The regime carries out a set of superficial reforms to contain popular anger, without losing the initiative, in the sense that it may backtrack from its reforms when circumstances are suitable. One Arab regime did exactly this recently (Morocco), repeating what had happened many times since the 1980s, following waves of protests in Arab countries.

C)     The army takes part in repressing uprisings, leading to either one of two conclusions: the defeat of the popular uprising, or the militarisation of the uprising against the army. This means civil war, which has its own logic different from revolutions. Regional and international powers could then intervene, depending on the strategic value of the country, especially if ethnic, sectarian or other cracks emerge (eg: Syria, and Yemen to a lesser extent).

D)     The popular uprising forces the regime to undertake radical reforms, or to hold fair elections as an honourable way to hand over power, perhaps in the belief that it could win them, as happened with Pinochet in Chile who lost the elections and handed over power after a decade and a half of authoritarian rule. That led to democratic transition in which all sides, including the army, offered guarantees to ensure success. However, this is not the usual model for reform. Still, what matters is pressuring the regime to carry out fundamental reforms and demand they be expanded until a real transitional process is launched that both ruling elites and opposition would join to foster real regime change (eg: Tunisia). This is the scenario that democratic forces must seek. This is the best option, but it depends to a large degree on the wisdom and awareness of the elites in power and the opposition, among other things. In Sudan, political parties and organised civil society groups have a long history of peaceful political action - which increases the odds of success.


Second: If we elaborate that fourth scenario, which is of interest to us in this case and to the Sudanese and Arab people, we conclude that a spontaneous popular uprising may not achieve this result unless two conditions are satisfied: 

A)     The uprising evolves into a higher degree of organisation by proposing a real political programme agreed upon by all active political forces wishing to establish a democratic system.

B)     The army refuses to repress popular protests and commits to preserving the unity and safety of the country. The Sudanese army could play this role. (The regime is already forming militias to attack protesters).

The first condition is difficult to meet if the political forces do not cooperate to bridge schisms, whether they be ideological, ethnic, sectarian or so on. All differences must be set aside during the transitional process, to focus on building democratic systems and institutions, and to organise these differences within them. No real transition can begin in the presence of major divisions that lead to maximalist polarisations that often lead to failure. In Egypt, this led each side in the polarised opposition to try to win over the army to use it against the other side. The army exploited this gratuitous religitimization of intervenion in politics to seize power.

The second condition can be achieved if the popular movement is able to engage in dialogue with moderate elements in the regime. But if it rejects compromises and threatens all elements in the regime with revenge - even without organised transitional justice - then this will bring together the ruling elites and their popular bases and link their fate to the fate of the regime.

No popular movement wishing to see democratic change can seek to erase all that was and to start from a blank slate, because this often leads either to unify the regime like a fortress protected by the army, or to some kind of civil war in which the regime - if the army sides with it – wins the war, or the forces of change triumph - often after the most extreme party in the opposition comes to dominate it. In this case, chaos maybe the result or a new dictatorial regime.

Democratic change requires a measure of social accord and the ability to bargain and reach understandings with moderate elements in the existing regime, that is, elements that accept broader reforms and transition towards an agreed new system. This cannot happen if the opposition threatens to uproot or exterminate all those affiliated to the previous regime, such was the case, for example, in Libya after the revolution. 

Third: The fulfillment of these conditions requires the presence of wise leadership with a strong will. The spontaneous character has an important role in the revolutionary moment, but there are limits to this role after which it starts to better serve the goals of the regime, in the absence of clear leadership and goals, and willingness to bargain for the sake of achieving them.

This could be achieved by establishing an agreed programme for the bare minimum demands for the next phase, which would include peaceful transition without threatening revenge, even if the price is to offer guarantees for characters in the regime in return for relinquishing power.

Such transitions cannot last or succeed unless the forces of change are unified away from ideological programmes and attempts to revive identitarian divides for purposes of mobilising support.

If the goal is to establish a democratic system, the democratic forces must be from the outset concerned with the following three issues:

1)      Determining the features of the transitional phase together with other forces, and committing to their success, by putting them above partisan interests.

2)      Unanimous agreement on respecting democratic institutions and procedures, and values related to rights and civil liberties. Democratic transitions cannot be successful with elections alone. National unity must be safeguarded following transitional elections - that is, small majorities must not dominate governments - before trust is built, existing democratic institutions are consolidated, and national consensus is ensured regarding democratic procedures in a way that majority rule and minority’s political rights would be respected.

Failure to follow these steps could lead transitional elections to chaos or to plotting by ambitious officers in the army and the old regime, often producing military coups

Any attempt to settle major issues during transitions through majority rule would therefore be dangerous and would undermine the entire process. There must first be consensus on the democratic system per se among the main political and social forces. This would make it possible to manage the rule by majority within the democratic umbrella after the end of the transitional phase, when political forces become confident that the minority will accept decisions by the majority, and that the majority will accept the peaceful handover of power when the time comes if the balance of power changes and the minority becomes an electoral majority. However, the need for national unity may continue for a few years after, within the democratic system.

Failure to follow these steps could lead transitional elections to chaos or to plotting of political forces with ambitious officers in the army and the old regime, often producing military coups. As is known, previous democratic experiences in Sudan have produced military coups.

3)     Finally, it must be clear that democracy is not the exclusive solution to social and economic problems in a given country, rather a solution to issues of violating human rights and citizenship issues, to manage conflicts and political disputes peacefully through democratic institutions and values, and to subdue security apparats and army to elected political echelons.

Social and economic issues are linked to economic policies of the rulers in democratic and authoritarian systems. They are also linked to the socio-economic structure of a country, its foreign relations, and the ability of rulers to mobilise investments and economic stimuli to meet people's needs during transitions, before reforming the economy to be able to sustain state and society - for example agricultural reforms, reforms of services, or income distribution and so on.

There are also differences that democracy per se cannot settle, but which can be settled in the framework of democracy, such as differences over distribution of revenues, development and human development, and other issues linked to the nature of dominant political and social forces and their policies.

Yet what is clear to me, and to many researchers around the world, is that once democracy emerges, it is difficult for it to last and stabilise in conditions of low growth and deteriorating living standards. Therefore, to avoid delusions and building castles on foundations of sand, creating exaggerated expectations followed by those disappointments which become fertile ground for counter-revolution, democratic forces must be frank with the people about these facts.

The time has come for change in Sudan, there is no doubt. It is best for all sides that the regime itself becomes aware of this truth. No less importantly, the forces of change, whether they are opposition parties or in the grassroots, must learn the lessons of other Arab uprisings.

This is an edited translation. Click here for the original Arabic.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @AzmiBishara

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.