The 7-year old conflict in Syria that is drawing to a close turned out to be a geopolitical struggle ultimately, although it began with the Arab Spring. For all protagonists involved in the conflict, geopolitical concerns were the overriding factor. For example, Tehran gave primacy to the geopolitical struggle because it has implications for its own resistance against the US and Israel. Assad has become a quasi-ally in the resistance. But then, there is no serious contradiction, since Assad also enjoys broad popular support within Syria and there is probably no one who could seriously challenge him in a democratic election.
Surprisingly, through the 8-year period of the Syrian civil war, the democratic empowerment in Iraq and Lebanon continued to gained traction. The two countries even successfully held elections and formed new governments. The important thing is that political pluralism has gained ground and it is no longer conceivable that a strongman can usurp power in Baghdad or Beirut in the prevailing climate.
Of course, Iran’s own Islamic democracy has struck roots through these past 4 decades since the 1979 revolution and it is the political legitimacy derived from it more than anything else that defeated all the US machinations to overthrow the regime. Similarly, in Turkey, too, a situation prevails where despite being a ‘strongman’, President Recep Erdogan also unquestionably enjoys a democratic mandate to rule.
The bottom line is that the countries of the northern tier of the Middle East — comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — have mostly reached a point in their political evolution on the path of democratic change where the strongman has become a museum piece. (Afghanistan and Syria are a work in progress.)
On the contrary, the southern tier presents a dismal picture — comprising the Persian Gulf oligarchies, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, etc.— despite the fact that the Arab Spring first appeared in that part of the Middle East and created yearnings for democratic change in these countries.
Sudan and Algeria are the current battle grounds. The autocrats have been overthrown in mass upheaval. But how far this revolutionary situation translates as democratic transition is still far from clear. On the face of it, the odds are heavily stacked against democratic transition. The crucial point is that unlike in the northern tier, where two major regional powers — Turkey and Iran — have actively promoted the democratic transition, there is no regional power in the southern tier which is willing to countenance change to representative rule.
Presently, the three most powerful regional states in the southern tier — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — are staunchly opposed to any democratic transition in Sudan. (Meanwhile, in Libya, too, a strongman is on the march with support from Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.) Ironically, Turkey and Iran have remained ambivalent.
On the contrary, Saudi Arabia has openly expressed support for the military in Sudan. Egypt too has made it clear that it is not in favour of democratic change in Sudan. It stands to reason that Saudi Arabia and the UAE apprehend the prospect that political Islam might ride the wave of popular uprising and come to power in Sudan — as had happened briefly in Egypt and more so in Morocco.
At any rate, the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian axis envisages a future for Sudan on the lines of the autocratic set-up in Cairo, which is a barely disguised military dictatorship. As in the case of the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that overthrew the elected government of Mohammed Morsi, Israel and the US are also serious players behind the scenes in Sudan. It has come to light that Sudanese military figures have been in touch with Mossad and the CIA.
Taking all factors into account, therefore, even if the protests in Sudan force the military to compromise and make way to civilian rule, that may prove to be only a temporary arrangement. The Saudis and UAE will bankroll the military with a view to prop up a strongman in Khartoum eventually. The high probability is that another strongman with military backing and foreign support is waiting in the wings.
The sad part is that Sudan has been left to the mercy of three autocratic regimes in the Middle East region. No big power — the US, Russia or China — champions a democratic transition Sudan. They are either indifferent or are secretly waiting for strongmen to reappear in Khartoum. They are probably uncomfortable with the ascendence of political Islam, too — even as part of a democratic process. Again, like in Syria, they view the emergent situation largely through the geopolitical prism. Tass news agency reported on Tuesday that “Russia recognises the new Sudanese authorities and is maintaining contact with them.”
Suffice to say, if the geopolitics has worked splendidly well for the countries of the northern tier of the Muslim Middle East, it creates hurdles for the advancement of the Arab Spring in the southern tier countries.
In this dismal scenario, the best thing to have happened so far is that the popular upheaval in Sudan has remained non-violent. History shows that violent revolts play into the hands of counterrevolutionary forces to coalesce and galvanise a new dictatorship. On the other hand, civil disobedience, boycott, demonstrations and other forms of non-violent strategies cannot succeed unless there is popular mobilisation, which is taking place in Sudan.
Without doubt, there is wide participation in the Sudanese protests of people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, young and old, women and men, secular and religious. What brings them together is the yearning for freedom and better living. And such inclusiveness is always a bulwark against attempts by the reactionary forces (elements of the Old Regime, the military, interest groups, etc.) to discredit the revolution and/or splinter the popular movement.
Equally, a long-term consolidation of the protest movement requires organisational capability and leadership. Here, again, the good part is that the protesters appear to be conscious that they are only at the beginning of a very long and fraught process. Interestingly, they seem to have learnt from the lessons of the previous wave of Arab Spring in the region. In particular, they seem to realise the need to get the military on their side and on their terms — which was how the revolution managed to survive in Tunisia in 2011 — so that they can prevent an Egypt-like scenario repeating.
So far, things have gone relatively well in Sudan. However, make no mistake that the worst may be still to come . The fact of the matter is that the regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE genuinely fear that if the revolution succeeds in Sudan, there could be a domino effect, which may threaten their own autocratic regimes.
Equally, from the geopolitical perspective, the autocratic regimes in the southern tier (plus Israel and the US) would fear that Algeria and Sudan — especially the latter — might incrementally edge closer to the northern tier countries (read Turkey and Iran) in the current line-up in Muslim Middle East, which of course would impact the overall regional balance.
Paradoxically, from the perspective of the ‘triple containment’ strategy that is being pursued against Turkey, Iran and Qatar regionally by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — and in the interests of Israel’s security — it is critically important that a strategically located southern tier country such as Sudan, which sits astride the Red Sea connecting the Suez Canal remains a protectorate under the rule of a dependable strongmen and stays that way for the foreseeable future.
Read a fascinating chronicle by the Jacobin magazine dated January 20, 2019 on the upcoming mass upheaval in Sudan entitled Toward Sudan’s Next Revolution.