Conflict, Coups and Democracy: The African Union and the Second Arab Spring

Tuesday, 7 May 2019
Nick Westcott

Last month, in mid-April, I visited Addis Ababa with a group from SOAS’s Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy to talk to people about multilateral diplomacy in Africa and the respective roles of the African Union, United Nations and individual national governments. We struck lucky, arriving as public protests in Algeria and Sudan were reaching their climax, with President Bouteflika already gone and President al-Bashir removed while we were there, and with the AU and UN discussing how to respond to the relentless advance on Tripoli of the Libyan National Army forces under General Haftar.

Our meetings therefore had a certain immediacy and edge to them. They forced us to consider what these developments tell us about the political evolution of northern Africa, and about the role of the international community – whether neighbours, regional organisations or ‘interested parties’ – in these circumstances.

At the time of the Arab Spring Mk I in 2011, people wondered why Algeria and Sudan, both countries with long-standing autocratic regimes, appeared immune to the wave of popular protest sweeping the Arab world.

The general conclusion was that, in Algeria’s case, the recent experience of the ‘Black Decade’ was still too traumatic for the populace to run the risk of unleashing violence once more on the country. Bouteflika had done a good job in using the hydrocarbon bonanza to benefit ordinary Algerians, so life was bearable and people would put up with ‘le pouvoir’ as the lesser of two evils. But since then, Algeria has been burning through the reserves it built up in the good years, life has become much less bearable for the ordinary citizen, and le pouvoir was clearly incapable of responding to the challenge of an economic model that had become unsustainable. Bouteflika’s immobilised body and incapacitated voice epitomised the sclerosis that infected the whole government. Economic reform is now unavoidable, will not be popular, and therefore needs a government with sufficient popular legitimacy that it can take the tough measures necessary.

The trouble, as in all autocracies, is where to find credible, popular alternative leaders when the whole purpose of the FLN regime has been to prevent any emerging. The existing political structures have no means of allowing an alternative to emerge. There was no-one within the system able to express the people’s views – so the people took to the streets to express them themselves directly. Starting on 16 February when it was announced Bouteflika would stand for a fifth term, by 3 April, even the regime recognised that Bouteflika had to leave immediately. In practice, le pouvoir is now represented by the Army chief, General Gaid Salah, who is struggling to manage a transition. But he finds it hard to know who to talk to, or to agree what it should be a transition to.

Sudan is slightly different. It too has suffered a national trauma, a decades-long civil war ending with the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Conflict nevertheless continued, both with the South over Abyei and with the SPLM(N) in the ‘Two Areas’ (Blue Nile and South Kordofan) and with militias in Darfur. President Bashir, under indictment from the ICC, kept a firm grip on the security apparatus, travelled little, and endeavoured to keep the Khartoum middle classes happy enough despite the declining economy. Over time, however, the corruption and incompetence of the government hollowed out both the state and its coffers. By 2018, the economy was in free fall. Even the middle classes could bear it no more and, with no political mechanism left to express their views, made their protest en masse on the streets. Bashir’s security apparatus toyed with the repression option, but a critical segment of the Army, the Rapid Support Forces (formerly the Janjaweed militia) under Lt Gen Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti) would not support it, and on 11 April detained President Bashir and announced a transition.

Here too, though, the mechanisms have not existed for an opposition with public legitimacy to emerge. There are (compromised) Islamist parties, an exiled Communist Party, the separatist SPLM(N), but the protest were largely coordinated by the Sudanese Professionals Association, effectively representing the disenchanted middle classes. The protestors have clearly learnt lessons from the protests elsewhere of 2011: there are few prominent ring leaders to round up, and no trust in the Army to deliver a true transition unless the protesters stay in the streets until satisfactory change is delivered.

In both protests, one striking feature has been the prominence of women, particularly in Sudan, where the Bashir regime had explicitly adopted a restrictive Islamist stance on female participation in public and economic life. The struggle is not just a struggle for liberation from authoritarianism, but from male authoritarianism.

Libya is the prime example of what both countries wish to avoid – a wholesale disintegration into violence and chaos. Such a collapse is easy to precipitate and hard to recover from, and leaves a country open to the risk of external interference. Syria, not so far away, is the most graphic example of external forces deciding who wins and who loses. Since 2012, the international community, through the UN, has tried to broker a political agreement and then implement the Schirat Accord of 2015 – but has been stymied at every turn by one or other faction of Libya’s hopelessly fragmented politics, often encouraged by one or another external actor. Haftar and the LNA appear to have decided it is time to settle the matter by brute force, with a little bribery on the side – though as ever in Libya, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

So now we are witnessing a second Arab Spring, what can, and what should, the international community do about it?

The AU has been uncharacteristically silent on Algeria, as indeed has the rest of the world. Since France withdrew at the end of the liberation struggle, Algeria has been a proudly independent and self-contained nation. It has been active in the AU, present in the Sahel, but rigorously non-aligned. No-one outside wants to interfere, so it will – for now – be left to find its own salvation while the world watches and waits.

The same cannot be said of Sudan. The AU swiftly condemned the de facto coup, but has given the military rulers a relatively generous amount of time to negotiate a transition. Neighbouring countries have a lively interest in how the situation evolves. Egypt – coincidentally also the chair in office of the AU – is rumoured to be keeping in very close touch with the military council, headed by Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan, that is negotiating the transition. Together with their Gulf allies, the Egyptians are deeply anxious to avoid Islamist parties taking advantage of the transition to secure political control. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have rushed in with $3bn of support for the government to help prop up the economy and smooth the transition to a friendly new dispensation. President Al-Sisi seems inclined to see every revolution through the prism of Egypt’s experience, and see strong government as infinitely preferable to Islamic government. Of course, there is much history to the relations between Sudan and Egypt, and a high risk that excessive Egyptian or Gulf intervention will be counter-productive. Only the Sudanese can find the right political balance for themselves. So it is vital that the AU retains the lead international role, and Ethiopia, whose position is equally important and rather different from that of some others, is involved in the process.

The EU and US are primarily spectators here, but a signal that the AU should take the lead and that they are willing to invest in a successfully democratic and peaceful transition will help avoid an outcome overly influenced by funding from the Gulf.

In Libya, the AU has historically been frustrated by its lack of a leading role, but given the multiplicity of external actors, only the UN can provide the necessary leadership and authority – and even they are finding it very difficult to provide that. The EU is split between rival French and Italian interests; the Arab League is split between Egyptian/Gulf and Turkish/Qatari interests. And the AU is sidelined. But it is in such circumstances that multilateral diplomacy is most essential to avoid the kind of bloodbath that Syria became. Libya is a salvage operation on a ship already sunk. Finding a solution is ultimately all about money and jobs. This is negotiable; but only if individual external actors are forced to act in concert. The EU could help itself by leaning on its two protagonists (and that is where the UK could be useful – if it was staying).  But the AU’s chances of restraining Egypt are practically nil – which is where the world need the US to back the UN and not side with others in the Security Council who want an anti-Islamist ‘strong man’ solution that will simply be a recipe for perpetual conflict.

Of all the three situations, therefore, the best chance of the international community helping a managed and sustainable outcome rests in Sudan. But don’t hold your breath.

Nick Westcott is the director of RAS.