The costs of uncertainty

Hussein Haridy
Sunday 21 Apr 2019

While the departure of lifetime presidents in Algeria and Sudan may bring uncertainty to these countries, the geopolitical costs to the Arab world will be less unclear

The Arab world is again in the midst of major upheavals that none can say with certainty will lead to a restored state of normalcy.

Less than two weeks after the Algerian army brought former President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika to submit his resignation, the Sudanese military were faced with a similar dilemma.

To support President Omar Al-Bashir against the will of the majority that had taken to the streets from last December, protesting dire economic conditions and later demanding an end to Al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, or take up popular demands and oust a president who clung to power, failing to see the inescapable ending of his despotic rule coming.

Unlike the Algerian former president, Al-Bashir was ousted in what some have called a military coup on Thursday, 11 April. The former Sudanese defence minister read a statement on the official media that announced “uprooting this regime, seizing its head, after detaining him in a safe place”.

He went on to say that the army and the security agencies had watched the “bad administration” of Al-Bashir’s regime, its “systemic corruption”, the absence of justice and that the “poor became poorer and the rich became richer”.

He added that a military council set up by the army, the intelligence agencies and the security apparatus would govern the country for two years, after which “free and fair elections” would be held. In the meantime, the former defence minister announced the suspension of the constitution, the dissolution of the government and declared a state of emergency for three months.

These measures were accompanied by a closure of Sudanese airspace and borders, with a night curfew that would remain in force for one month.

Not unlike the Algerian situation, the popular mobilisation continued and the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which has led the mass popular uprising against the ousted Sudanese president, called on the people of Sudan to remain mobilised on the streets till the formation of a civilian transitional government. Sarah Abdel-Jaleel, a spokeswoman for the SPA told The Associated Press they will not accept a military coup and insisted on an “unconditional stepping down of Al-Bashir and his regime”.

The same position adopted by the demonstrators in Algeria. In both cases, the people want to bring down not only the heads of state but the two regimes, thus creating a power vacuum that would be very challenging to fill in case the protesters would insist on keeping the two armies out of the equation, particularly in the transitional period.

Such maximalist positions in Algeria and Sudan would make the transition to a civilian, democratic systems full of traps and most importantly it could backfire ultimately.

The absence of a dynamic party system, the multiplication of the centres of popular protest, the absence of national political figures capable of leading the two nations in the transition to democracy and the opposition to any role for the military in the transitional period are all factors that could make such a transition problematic and highly controversial.

Besides, people power is by definition ephemeral and could prove dangerously destabilising. Ironically, people power could turn out to be counterrevolutionary some time down the line.

How the two countries will manage the pre-transitional period will determine, to a great extent, future political developments in both Algeria and Sudan.

Undoubtedly, those exercising temporary power by force of circumstance are aware of the dangers to the territorial integrity of their respective countries, and in particular Sudan.

The two nations are surrounded geographically with centres on insecurity and instability. Algeria faces the ever-present threat of terrorist groups operating in Libya and on its southern borders in the Sahel. Sudan is also not far away from Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Horn Africa.

Because Algeria and Sudan are strategically-located, foreign powers have a great interest in monitoring closely the development of the political situation in both and are ready to intervene, directly or indirectly, if the situation gets out of control. The world does not want to see a repeat of the Libyan situation in either Algeria or Sudan.

The mass protesters in Algiers and Khartoum are probably unaware of the geopolitical cost of the radical changes taking place in their countries and I am not sure their street and professional leaders would give serious thought to such a cost.

However, it exists and it could weigh on the course of events in case the political classes and the two armies can’t find common ground and steer Algeria and Sudan away from political chaos and fragmentation.

Whether they accept or not, the military in Sudan and Algeria are indispensable guarantors of security and stability. Accordingly, attempts to shut them out are doomed to fail. Responsible leaders, when they emerge, in both nations should have the courage to tell the people the truth, however difficult to swallow.

Those leaders should avoid dancing with wolves, nor enter into any kind of transient alliance with them. By wolves I mean the forces of political Islam.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Egyptian experience, from 2011 to 2013, it is the futility of entering into political alliances with these forces on the illusionary belief that they are forces for democratic change.

Democracy for them is limited to the ballot box. Once in power, which they ardently believe is God-ordained, it is theirs to keep for an eternity.

The popular uprisings in Algeria and Sudan, if not properly and peacefully channelled to give way to more open and democratic systems, would further destabilise the Arab world at a time of major foreign policy challenges for Arab countries, at the forefront of which is, undoubtedly, the re-election of Binyamin Netanyahu for another term on 9 April and the expected announcement by the White House of its long-promised peace plan to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Just to give a preview of what could come next, Netanyahu announced a few days before the Israeli elections that, if re-elected, he would proceed to declare parts of Area C in the West Bank, where are located major Israeli settlement blocs, under Israeli sovereignty.

Some analysts interpreted this announcement as an electoral ploy to get the votes of the extreme right. However, the truth of the matter is that he will do just that. Arab disarray from coast to coast, and unlimited American support at the highest level, won’t stop him.

This is one of the huge geopolitical costs of the fall of the fossilised political systems of Arab Republican regimes.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The costs  of uncertainty

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