Recently, the Paris office of the Russia Today television network contacted me to ask me to participate in a program that would describe the recent events in Libya, Algeria and The Sudan (the northern one), grouping them under the heading “The second Arab Spring”. I sympathized with the outlook but, as a historian, I had to pass the occasion: ups and downs happening at the same time in three “Arab” countries cannot be added up as 1+1+1 = 3 revolutions. Why? Because the causes are different, the actors are also different and the probable consequences are likely to be different too. Let us start with Libya, the simplest of all cases.
Here a hard-line military secularist who fought both for and later against Gaddafi is trying to punch a gaggle of tribal and regional militias into some kind of an authoritarian state. Does he have popular support? Yes. Do his enemies have popular support? They do too. Is anybody a democrat? No. Could elections solve the problem? No. What is the role of Islamic militants? It depends where you look from: if you take the Libyan National Army (General Khalifa Haftar) viewpoint, the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez es-Sarraj is in fact simply of bundle of Islamic (and regional) militias tied together; the last elections took place in 2012 and gave no clear result. But if you take the Government’s point of view, it represents democratic legitimacy while General Haftar is a later day Saddam Hussein-in-the-making. Who will win? Whoever has a larger and better amount of firepower.
Now let us switch to neighboring Algeria. There is no fighting, no gun play, and no attempt at grabbing power by force and — so far — no effort at keeping it by force either. What do we have? An ailing government which is the product of a dead anti-colonial struggle movement. The colonialists (French) left the place fifty-seven years ago and were replaced by the victorious “revolutionary” National Liberation Front which created a pharaonic bureaucracy, took control of everything, laid down in its sarcophagus and went to sleep. The money from the oil kept rolling in and when the Islamist raised a flag of revolt, this triggered a seven year civil war (1992–1999) which killed 250,000.
Abdel Azziz Bouteflika, the last pharaoh who just abdicated, was eighty-two, could not walk and could hardly talk. He could not govern either and the country is now in a state of paralysis which the demonstrators who brought him down try to transcend through elections. The Army which propped the paralyzed regime up till the very last, is now trying to improvise some kind of a jerry-built political scaffolding in the hope of keeping all of the pharaoh’s friends and relatives in power, preferably covertly. The country hovers on the edge of a political abyss but the population is politically aware and mature. The Islamists have showed that they could do nothing to overhaul the system and that their violence did not bring about any solution. We are very far away from next-door Libya where guns still seem to hold some kind of morbid fascination and where those who wield them do not seem to know what they would do with the power they seem to seek if they could achieve it. Sudan then? Still a different situation.
There decolonization passed on in a gentlemanly way but left behind a gaping open scar between an “Arab” North and a “Heathen”? Christian”? “Animist”? “African”? South. In 2011 the Heathen/Christian/Animist/African South seceded with the broad support of the international community and sank two years later in a political fight between centralized dictatorship and democratic aspirations, the war being couched in the vocabulary of tribe against tribe because this was the only political syntax that was available to try de-encrypting a coded national landscape. Islam played no role after 2011since there were hardly any Muslims in the South. In the North everything revolved around it since the population was 95% Islamic and the military which had taken power pretended to be Muslim Radicals. So we ended up with two blocked blocs, the South in Civil War and the North in civil refusal of what it was told it should accept for overreaching cultural reasons.
Today the South simmers in a no-peace, no-war situation and the North, after four months of non-violent civilian demonstrations, has forced the military dictatorship to bring forth some kind of pretend reform which has so far changed nothing. Two against one in the three parallel but distinct nations fight. Are there any common points? Well, actually, some:
· The Islamists are in poor shape : they have showed their violence in Algeria and ruled in Sudan to the point where the country is beginning to resemble Venezuela : absolute power leading to absolute catastrophe
· Violence does not seem to bring much of a pay-off. General Haftar still seems to hope to turn his anti-Islamist credentials into hard power but the likelihood is low
· The Americans, traditionally hard players, seem lost in the maelstrom
· The Russians bet on the hard line (Haftar, Bashir) but without much success
So does it seem that “democracy” of some kind is on the rise? In the demonstrators minds, yes, certainly. In the fighter’s minds, this is much less obvious. So how does it tail out? It seems to be a turning of the page. General Haftar has missed the train. If he had waited for the “peace conference” which was in the works, he could have finessed his way after its predictable failure. By wanting to jump the gun, he in fact pushed himself back to the position both Sudan and Algeria are trying to wiggle themselves out of. Pushing down Army dictatorships without the embarrassing support of the Islamists seems to hold more for the future than trying to set up an authoritarian regime against them. This is a very crude approximation. But it might have to do for the time being. This seems to be what the demonstrators in the streets of Algiers and Khartoum are trying to tell us.