In recent years a range of autocratic Arab regimes and policy analysts in the West and the Middle East have spread a narrative about the end of the Arab uprisings, the impossibility and dangers of change from below, and the return of authoritarian stability.
According to such a narrative, the 2011 uprisings failed across the board. Egypt’s post-uprising democratic transition was soon replaced by a military-led leadership that took power through a coup. Tunisia became bogged down in political stalemate. Uprisings in Libya, Syria, and Yemen led to bloodshed and horror. In turn, no monarchies were challenged. While protests over economic and governance issues still occur, they do not augur another round of revolutionary fever. Arab regimes have learned how to prevent new waves of popular contestation, while Arab publics have learned the futility of trying to overturn their regimes.
However, the more recent overthrow of long-ruling presidents in Algeria and Sudan through popular uprisings posed a dramatic challenge to such a narrative of renewed autocratic stability. For regimes and pundits advancing the plotline of a return to the pre-2011 autocratic order, these new uprisings were unpleasant surprises, triggering deep fears of another round of revolutionary contagion. Wary of any hint of a new “Arab Spring,” most regional media downplayed their significance in the early days, framing them as idiosyncratic, local events.
This has changed over the last month. As the uprisings proved too powerful for presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria to survive, regional foreign policy rapidly shifted toward efforts to win the transitions. The relative silence of the United States emboldened the Gulf states to take the lead. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, along with proximate states such as Egypt, moved aggressively to transfer power to sympathetic new regimes. They worked with military elites to control the aftermath of the uprisings, offering financial assistance to help them consolidate power while blocking any role for Islamists or other perceived allies of rivals such as Qatar. These managed transitions aimed to demobilize protestors, preventing any possibility of the spread of revolution or genuine democratic change.
The material and political support for the military regimes managing these transitions has been accompanied by a coherent rhetorical strategy. The principle of monarchical superiority has been offered to explain why protests will not—and should not—spread beyond the troubled republics. Gulf monarchies have been able to rationalize the uprisings in the presidential republics of Algeria and Sudan as evidence not of continued Arab popular demands for change, but as a consequence of a rejection of non-monarchical systems. Democracy, in this thinking, is not simply an impossible dream but is actually an inferior and inappropriate aspiration for Arab societies.
This doctrine of monarchical superiority has been a recurrent feature of public rhetoric and policy analysis since 2011. It is belied by the abundant evidence of popular challenges to monarchies, such as those in Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco. There have also been strong alternative explanations for the survival of monarchical regimes such as state capacity, oil wealth, and impunity through international alliances. Saudi Arabia and the UAE actively intervened to help those monarchies survive popular protests, which presumably should not have been necessary had monarchies been so legitimate and stable. The financial, political, media, and military assistance they provided to allied monarchies served to portray their survival as evidence that monarchies are more effective in ruling Arab societies.
To prevent the diffusion of revolutionary protest that most frightened these Arab regimes, it was critical for them to isolate Algeria and Sudan by depicting them as local matters rather than as “Arab uprisings.” In effect, what happened in Algeria and Sudan was cast as indigenous failures reflecting the structural weaknesses of Arab republics, as well as representing exclusively African affairs.
Algeria and Sudan fit the model of how the UAE and Saudi Arabia responded to uprisings in republican systems in 2011. The uprisings in those two North African countries (like the ongoing civil war in Libya) were seen not as posing a threat to monarchical systems, but as opportunities to expand and consolidate regional influence—ideally at Qatar’s expense. This mirrored their support for Egypt’s 2013 military coup to overturn a Qatari-aligned Muslim Brotherhood government, for the anti-Islamist coalition in Tunisia, and for particular factions within the armed opposition in Libya and Syria.
Sudan’s uprising, once the shock of mass popular mobilization had been absorbed, could be welcomed as a popular revolt against the “Islamist” Omar al-Bashir. This depiction identified him with Qatar in the Saudi and Emirati regional narrative, while erasing years of efforts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to cultivate Bashir as an ally, woo him away from a partnership with Iran, and establish military bases in Sudan. This equating of Islamism with instability is also how UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash justified support for Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s destabilizing escalation in Libya. Gargash emphasized the dangers of “extremist militias” to stability, while arguing that the “priority in Libya [is] to counter extremism/ terrorism and support stability in long drawn out crisis.”
Another core principle the Saudis and Emiratis have adopted is the priority of stability over democracy or revolutionary change. The chaos that followed the 2011 uprisings—even when exacerbated in no small part by their own meddling—is offered as justification for a slow, managed transition that avoids sweeping democratic change. Gargash recently justified Arab actions in Sudan using such terms: “Totally legitimate for Arab states to support an orderly & stable transition in Sudan… We have experienced all-out chaos in the region and, sensibly, don’t need more of it,” he tweeted. In Algeria, too, the support for a military-led transition was portrayed as necessary to avoid violence or disorder.
This approach requires the demobilization of protests, through gambits such as change at the top of the regime, increasing repression of protesters, a rapid infusion of financial assistance, and the promise of political reform. But in Algeria and Sudan, protestors pushed back against such efforts. They demonstrated a clear understanding of the lessons of 2011, through a rigid adherence to nonviolence, a determination to remain mobilized, rejection of military-led transitions, demands for more rapid democratization without a leadership role for the military, and open hostility toward any Gulf role in their political struggle.
To this point, the Sudanese and Algerian publics remain highly mobilized and unified in opposing the installation of new military-led regimes. Their ability to sustain that unity and mobilization will be put to the test by the Saudi- and UAE-led strategy to harness the popular upheaval and restore stability on their own terms.