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Not a New Arab Spring

Since the protests began in Algeria on 16 February, the second major protests in the North African region in recent times – the first being the protests that broke out in Sudan shortly before Christmas – there have been widespread comparisons within the media between these current protest movements, and the wave of revolutions that spread across the region in 2011 during the Arab Spring. This is unsurprising; the significance of the Arab Spring renders it an appropriate point of reference. However, more often than not, the present-day protests are framed misleadingly as a new or a deferred Arab Spring.

Certainly, there are some obvious similarities between current protest movements and those of 2011. Civil disobedience, specifically through the occupation of public space, was then and is now the main means of protest, in the form of marches and demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes. The use of social media, so highly commented on during the Arab Spring, continues to play an important role, most notably in Sudan where the image of the young female protestor, Alaa Saleh, captured international attention after going viral. Just as the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt brought about the fall of their respective long term autocratic presidents, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, in a short space of time, so too have the current movements in Sudan and Algeria resulted in the ousting of presidents Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir, again in a relatively brief timeframe. While what the protestors want in Algeria and Sudan might differ in the specifics, especially as the respective situations continue to evolve, what underlies both movements, and indeed the movements of 2011, is deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and call for change and mass system reform.

However, there are some striking differences between the revolutions of 2011 and 2019. First and foremost the Arab Spring was characterised by its transnational nature. The Tunisian protests, sparked by the self-immolation of vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi following police harassment in December 2010, not only led to the fall of Ben Ali a mere four weeks later, but inspired protest movements in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, Morocco, Western Sahara, as well as in Algeria and Sudan in the early months of 2011. This wave of revolution across the Middle East and North Africa was directly inspired by the success of Tunisia’s revolution; protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square shouted: “Tunisia is the solution!” Beyond the Arab world, as Manuel Castells notes in Networks of Outrage and Hope, the Spanish Indignados movement and Occupy Movement were influenced by the example of the Arab Spring, with protest movements that combined online organisation and the occupation of public spaces and more explicitly with online posts that called for a “Tahrir moment.”

By contrast, there is no such connection between the movements in Sudan and Algeria, which were triggered by very different events, respectively the rise of the price of bread and the decision of Bouteflika to seek a 5th presidential mandate. While the Arab Spring spread rapidly in weeks and days, there were almost two months between the start of the Sudanese protests and the start of the Algerian protests. Despite the similarities, they share in approach and aims, in challenges and in triumphs, and though the media continues to relate them to each other, the current movements do not share that transnational element that defined and was at the heart of the Arab Spring. Crucially, at this point in time, there are no signs that either movement might spread beyond its borders.

The perceived momentous nature of the Arab Spring also bears remarking on.

As events unfolded across the region throughout the early months of 2011, they captured international and media attention. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the Arab Spring, it is undeniable that it was recognised at the time as a moment of change. In that sense, the current movements in Sudan and Algeria bear no comparison in terms of international attention or media coverage; there is no sense that this is anyway a comparable moment of change.

The Arab Spring featured the rise of what Manuel Castells terms the “networked social movements,” that combination of the online communications through social media platforms and the occupation of public space, that now arguably characterises protest movements worldwide. This new use of social media to connect, organise and spread posts and videos drew considerable media and academic attention at the time. It’s noteworthy, that there is indeed little comment on the use of social media in the current movements in Sudan and Algeria – simply because such methods are now typical for any social movement, such as the recent Generation Extinction movement in London, the Women’s Marches that took place after the election of Donald Trump and the current children’s environmental protests. Indeed, one of the most significant legacies of the Arab Spring and the other protest movements of 2011 is that they defined this generation’s approach to revolution.

In relating the present-day protest movements in Sudan and Algeria to the Arab Spring, perhaps the most significant point we can take is the fact that these protests are taking place in a post-Arab Spring era. The Arab Spring has happened, and its legacy is there for all to see, from the catastrophe of the Syrian Civil War (and the ensuing and connected rise of ISIS and the Islamic State), to the much-condemned UN intervention in Libya to the return to autocratic rule in Egypt, following the 2013 military coup, to the simple fact that it has not wrought the change in the region that it promised. Whereas the Arab Spring was triggered by the hope that what happened in Tunisia could happen elsewhere and everywhere, the current protestors stand in the knowledge that Tunisia was the exception, not the rule. But that is to their credit, and perhaps to their advantage. Perhaps they can learn from the legacy of the Arab Spring in order to avoid it to achieve genuine democratic change.