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Why Overthrowing a Despot is the Easy Part

Why Overthrowing a Despot is the Easy Part

Since the “Arab Spring,” enthusiasm for revolts have been low and global engagements with these instances has waned.  In Syria, the death toll has exponentially grown since the initial uprisings that sparked the wider civil war – yet reporting on Syria has experienced a general decrease.  With the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in September 2011, Libya has experienced a succession of civil wars between rival warlords, with a new one potentially starting with Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, leader of the armed forces loyal to the Libyan House of Representatives, fighting with rival factions for control of the capital, Tripoli.  Two recent events might provide a strategic path forward, in which proponents of liberal democracy could strengthen democratic institutions and traditions.  Yet, in order to maintain the progress that has been already been made, an understanding of the domestic and international environments is key to safeguarding liberal democracy’s world-wide growth.

In both Sudan and Algeria, long-standing leaders have been toppled.  Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down after nearly twenty years in office, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had ruled with an iron fist since 1989, when he came to power in a military coup.  Yet, what much of the media coverage miss is that it was not the men themselves that generated power, but the systems which they facilitated both domestically and internationally. 

When discussing the overthrow of leaders, the analysis should veer towards the structure of the domestic political system.  For example, when Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, was toppled in 2011, many were quick to rejoice and proclaim the event as  “a new dawn” for the country.   Yet, as Kevin Casas Zamora, the former second vice president of Costa Rica, noted, this was only the end of the first act.  Like all great dramas, the outcome of the following events is far more important.  In the case of Egypt, the turmoil that ensued, as well as the overthrow of the democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in a coup d’etat suggests that the internal political dynamics of a country, particularly in ones with a strong military presence, can derail democratic efforts. With regards to Algeria and Sudan, both countries possess the same potential in terms of revolutionary fervor and popular drive for representative government  that many in the Middle East did to transform themselves into full-fledged democracies, as some have.  In the case of Tunisia, despite a recent deterioration in Tunisia’s aggregate freedom score, which is calculated based on a country’s political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House, its democracy is still regarded as being free, while it was only partly free as early as 2014. Egypt, by comparison, saw its freedom score briefly rise after 2011 to achieve the status of “Partly Free” in 2013 before regressing to being Not Free by 2014 as civil liberties and political rights have deteriorated since the military takeover.  Both of these cases provide a framework through which we can better understand the situations in both Sudan and Algeria.

When looking at these revolutions, and their prospects of success, we must see how internal political dynamics have played a role in stopping the ultimate triumph of democracy. In Algeria, some have noted that Mr. Bouteflika that he was simply the figurehead for a “shadowy group of businessmen, politicians and generals who really run the country.” This is worrisome given the similarities that it has with the case of Egypt, where the military has had a strong influence on the politics of the country – having helped oust both Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Morsi before seizing power.  In the time since, the influence of the military on not only politics, but also society has grown with military firms, flourishing, in particular, under the former military man and current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  The Algerian political situation is not much better with the military until General Salah now commanding a significant amount of power in the country, and has been reluctant to give up control.  Thus, protestors should recognize that their battle is not over as a caretaker government is needed there in order to oversee the installation of a more open system before the protestors fracture and allow for the military to step in and installing a system of their own design.  Similar sentiments can be said about Sudan.

Though the Sudanese have ousted their aging despot, they have yet to transform their political systems. This is problematic because without significant changes, they will eventually end up with another despot who could be inclined to crack down on those who protested Mr. al-Bashir’s rule.  There also remains the problem of the country’s internal socio-economic make-up as the protestors in Khartoum being relatively well-off urban dwellers with the rest of the country being improvised.  Some have thus worried that without Mr. al-Bashir’s iron fist, we could see a resumption of separatism that characterized the mid-2000s when South Sudan became an independent country.  Furthermore, this could feed into a desire for military rule that could allow the country to slide into a similar situation as Egypt, as opposed to evolving into  a democracy, as Tunisia has.  Though there remains much to be seen, the international response will also be key to any future in both of these countries.

It is worth noting that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague had issued an international arrest warrant for Mr. al-Bashir, yet thirty-three countries, including China, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, have ignoredthis .  In one such case in June of 2015 in South Africa, the then head of state Jacob Zuma, actively chose to hastily facilitate al-Bashir’s exit from the country, even as the courts were deciding whether the South African government should arrest him.  This case suggests that there remains many that would wish for a person similar to Mr. al-Bashir to take power in Sudan, which is very troubling for the growth of democratic institutions there.  Moreover, if the military were to gain external support for their rule, then that could further problematize any progress made by the protestors, especially in light of the $3 billion pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Sudan, whilst the country still has military men in charge

Therefore, the response by the liberal democratic community must be carefully tailored in order to help allow for progress in these respective nations.  The current situation that Sudan is in was partially triggered by United States sanctions on the country due to its perceived role in sponsoring terrorism. Though, one should be cautious with sanctions as they tend to harm those in need more than those in power. Thus, the international community should look to apply pressure on these countries’ militaries. This would mean denying access to Western financial institutions and markets until they allow for stable civilian rule to be established. If sufficient, acute pressure is applied, perhaps a more sustainable path forward can emerge not only for Algeria and Sudan, but also for the Middle East and Africa on the whole. 

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