Concluding her discussion on the revolts in Sudan and Algeria, Emma Wilde Botta argues that we are seeing a new surge of global revolt against authoritarianism and austerity. Revolutionaries are grappling with questions of strategy and organization as the forces of conservation come into conflict with the forces of transformation.
By Emma Wilde Botta
The outbreak of the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings in early 2019 marked the next wave of revolution in North Africa. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a coup following months of protests, strikes, and sit-ins. An opposition coalition negotiated with the military to form a new constitution and transitional government. In Algeria, weeks of mass protests forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. The popular movement continues to demand fundamental political change as a ruling clique of army generals and businessmen cling to their decades-long grip on power.
In both countries, the uprisings forced the military high command to sacrifice the regimes’ figureheads. But the generals, who are materially tied to the existing political order, have an interest in retaining the essential structure of the regimes. The next round of struggle brings the forces of conservation into conflict with the forces of transformation. Whether the regimes or popular forces emerge victorious depends, in part, on strengthening workplace struggle, developing revolutionary leadership, and deepening the cracks in discipline among the military rank and file.
With a new surge of global revolt against authoritarianism and austerity, revolutionaries are grappling with questions of strategy and organization. Drawing lessons from Sudan and Algeria can strengthen our perspectives. This blogpost will lay out some initial, broad ideas with a focus on the subjective agency of the left.
Struggle from below as a challenge to authoritarianism
The movements in Sudan and Algeria are powerful reminders that forms of struggle outside the bounds of acceptable, legal political channels pose an effective challenge to authoritarianism. Protest, civil disobedience, and strikes accomplished what voting, lobbying, and individual acts of defiance could not. Mass participation from all layers of society, united in a deep rejection of the status quo, brought down two long-time autocratic presidents and forced the ruling class to make concessions.
The self-activity of the masses – people in motion, in the streets, in conversation with one another, in the workplace – is transformative, allowing people to feel their own power. Incipient social revolutions were glimpsed in the temporary utopias created by the sit-ins and the high level of women’s participation and leadership. Through struggle, people’s ideas change, and this is an indispensable part of fighting for a better world. It is also mass struggle from below that forces the wavering middle classes and the rank and file of the military to choose a side.
Revolutionary tactics with reformist trajectory
The uprisings successfully toppled presidents and posed a significant challenge to the existing order. In one of the most significant victories of the MENA uprisings, Sudan’s movement won a path to parliamentary democracy and a new constitution that enshrines civil rights. However, the demands for system change that rang out in the streets will require the rebuilding of society on the basis of an entirely new order. So far, the movements have been satisfied with reforms to capitalism.
Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene explains the contradiction this way, writing, ‘These uprisings, like most revolutionary situations in history, released enormous energy, an unparalleled sense of renewal, and a shift in consciousness. In terms of popular movement and mass mobilization, the MENA uprisings were revolutionary, but in terms of strategy and vision they have had a reformist trajectory.’ This phenomenon has been identified and studied by a number of scholars.
What contributed to the development of revolutionary tactics alongside reformist strategy and vision in Sudan and Algeria?
We can begin to understand this dynamic by examining three factors: the ‘non-ideological’ orientation of these uprisings, the weakness of organized labor and rank and file activity, and the absence of revolutionary organizations and politics.
‘Non-ideological’ orientation of the uprisings
In Sudan, the broad opposition coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), became the identifiable leadership of the uprising. The SPA adopted a sort of ‘non-ideological‘ attitude. As Sudanese academic Magdi El-Gizouli explains, the organization ‘claims no political orientation and it speaks a universal functional language of freedoms and rights to which every citizen is entitled,’ framing the struggle in patriotic terms and compelling people to act based on their commitment to (an idealized) national unity. The perceived absence of political persuasion likely appealed to a population tired of corrupt politicking, but it left the SPA susceptible to adopting reformist strategy.
The FFC entered into negotiations with the Transitional Military Council (TMC) with clear demands from the Declaration for Freedom and Change and the weight of a popular movement behind it. Several times, when negotiations reached an impasse, the FFC called for a show of force from the movement to pressure the TMC. The most notable example was the SPA’s call for protests and a general strike following the 3 June massacre by paramilitary and security forces that left over 125 protesters dead.
Despite an energized, militant mass movement, the main organizations within the FFC compromised on key demands as the negotiation process unfolded. They shifted from demanding the military immediately transfer power to civilians to agreeing to a power-sharing deal. A transitional governing sovereign council would be composed of five civilian members and five military members with an eleventh member chosen through consensus. The FFC would appoint a new prime minister and propose a list of ministers to be confirmed by the prime minister.
The negotiated deal demonstrates the reformist trajectory of the leading opposition groups. Resolving the crisis through an interim government of neutral technocrats largely aligns with a neoliberal conception of politics. The military generals, viewed as partners in this process, are assumed to have compatible interests with the popular movement. The transitional government’s civilian leaders, who were proposed by the FFC, have accepted the horizons of neoliberal reform. Proposed solutions to the crises facing the country have taken free markets, property relations, and the state for granted. Newly appointed Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdouk and Finance Minister Ibrahim Elbadawi are developing a plan for economic reforms in concert with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This process is complicated by the United States’ longstanding designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
In Algeria, the main slogans of the uprising reflect a profound rejection of the political system that produced a puppet president. As with all popular movements that involve many layers of society, the ideas in the streets are mixed and sometimes contradictory. The zeitgeist of the movement centers around broad political issues of corruption, political accountability, and legal reform. Nadir Djermoune, a leading member of the Parti Socialist des Travailleurs (PST) in Algeria, argues, ‘The criticism of the regime is at a moral level with legal implications and avoids a profound critique of the neoliberal economic system.’
The movement stands at an impasse as weekly street protests continue and the clique of ruling generals and businessmen, known as le pouvoir (the power), attempt to delay fundamental change to the regime. Particularly since Bouteflika’s stroke in 2013, the behind-the-scenes rule of le pouvoir has become increasingly obvious to the people. Now, with Bouteflika gone, it has been difficult for Army Chief Ahmed Gaïd Salah and interim President Abdelkader Bensalah to present themselves as a break from the old regime.
The movement faces significant organizational challenges. Ten months into the uprising, no clearly identifiable leaders or political structures have emerged. The lack of a cohered opposition coalition has hindered efforts to coordinate actions or present a way forward. As Ahmad Al-Shioli explained in April, ‘Some popular organization has to emerge now and present a roadmap that the masses could rally around, giving them a chance to catch their breath. The ruling regime is desperate to draw a red line against the protests and is intent on engaging in mass arrests.’
Weakness of organized labor and rank and file activity
The mass movements in Sudan and Algeria effectively mobilized millions of people. Yet, the myriad workers who participated in the uprisings did so principally in their role as citizens, rather than as workers. The key sites of rebellion were the streets and public spaces, rather than the point of production.
Though organized labor intervened in the movements, it was unable to seize the full possibilities of the moment. Decades of regime infiltration and corruption had significantly weakened official trade unions. However, the upheaval gave new strength to independent unions, particularly in Sudan.
The FFC opposition coalition was led by workers – the doctors, lawyers, engineers, and journalists of the SPA – and included many workers’ organizations. In late May, the country participated in an impressive 2-day general strike in order to pressure the TMC to cede power to civilians. In June, a multi-day general strike to demand an investigation into the 3 June massacre showed a highly engaged, militant populace. Despite this, the strike was cut short by the SPA following the announcement of a power-sharing deal between the FFC and the TMC.
Throughout the uprising and the negotiation process, political and economic concerns were largely separated. The movement was unable to put forward concrete economic demands to influence negotiations. The new constitution lacks any specific measures to address working conditions or wages. Though prior to the uprising the SPA had campaigned for a living wage and the introduction of a minimum wage, they did not raise these demands in the Declaration of the Forces for Freedom and Change or in negotiations.
Beyond the leadership of the FFC, handfuls of rank and file workers took initiative to demand permanent contracts, independent unions, and the firing of managers tied to the regime. Though relatively isolated, these instances of workers’ self-activity offer a glimpse of the type of rank and file action that could advance the struggle. The fight for the return of legitimate trade unions brings workers directly into contact with the corrupt bureaucracy appointed by al-Bashir. Dr. Sara Abdelgalil, president of the Sudan Doctors’ Union, UK branch, emphasizes that this struggle with the ‘deep state’ is part of the ongoing movement.
In Algeria, organized labor is key to the process of deepening the radicalization. Labor unions are participating in the current revolutionary dynamic, but unlike in Sudan, their role has been very limited. Early in the movement, an anonymous call for a general strike yielded low participation, but did include workers at the state’s massive oil and gas companies. The possibility of future strikes likely hastened the general’s decision to oust Bouteflika.
The movement has vitalized independent trade unions, in particular the Confederation of Independent Unions (CSA) that organizes in the civil service. From the start, the CSA has supported and participated in the protests. On 10 April and 1 May, the CSA organized strikes that echoed the political demands in the streets, but failed to meld these with additional socio-economic demands. Since then, the leadership of the union has neglected to initiate further actions.
With a deepening political crisis, labor has an opportunity to turn the tide and bring the movement from the streets into the workplaces. In a promising sign, twelve independent trade unions announced a plan to launch nationwide strikes and sit-ins to oppose the elections. This would further incapacitate an already struggling economy, at a time when the government is soliciting foreign financial help for the first time in more than a decade. As Al-Shioli explains, ‘Algerians have significant industrial leverage to wield against their ruling class. What happens next depends on how this power is channeled to transform Algeria.’
Absence of revolutionary organizations and politics
The revolts of the 2011 Arab Spring and the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings displayed the relative weakness of revolutionary organization and politics. In the assessment of Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene, ‘The MENA uprisings are lacking the kind of radicalism that marked earlier revolutions of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, where anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist sentiments were expressed very clearly through well-articulated visions.’ Revolution, in the sense of transforming the economic system to fundamentally change society, remains a marginal idea, and few organizations approach today’s crises with that long-term strategic vision.
Despite the rebellious zeal in the streets, the traditional organizations of the revolutionary left in Sudan and Algeria have been unable to cohere a revolutionary wing of the movement. No new organizations are seriously contending for influence in the movement, even on a relatively small scale. In both countries, political demands have been largely divorced from economic demands. The movements have yet to motivate workers to join based on their class position.
The most prominent leftist organization in Sudan is the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), which was once regarded as the largest such party in the Arabic-speaking world and carried significant influence among a section of Sudanese workers. Sudanese activist Mohammed Elnaiem attributes the SCP’s declining influence to anti-communism campaigns, a stagnant Stalinist outlook, and a pattern of political concession for the sake of expediency.
Nevertheless, the SCP played a valuable role in the uprising as a member of the FFC and demonstrated the challenge and possible benefit of a revolutionary current. The SCP criticised the 17 July political agreement and later rejected the power-sharing deal with the military, alongside the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) – an alliance of three prominent rebel groups. The SCP called for ongoing struggle until demands for a civilian government were met, in an effort to bind left opposition to the compromise. Though the attempt was unsuccessful, the movement and process of radicalization benefited from the SCP staking out this position.
In Algeria, the interim government has been pushing elections in order to reproduce the regime with new faces. Simultaneously, Army Chief Gaïd Salah has been angling to increase his power. The movement views the interim government as an illegitimate continuation of the regime and refuses new elections organized by Bouteflika-era officials. Twice, plans for new elections have been thwarted. On 1 November, tens of thousands of demonstrators surged into the streets to mark the fight for independence from France and reject the planned 12 December elections, chanting, ‘Dump the generals in the garbage!’
Protesters have called for the end to le pouvoir but, so far, no organizations have presented a convincing alternative. Over the past decades, traditional political parties have lost legitimacy, and none are leading the current movement. Leftwing forces remain scattered, disorganized, and marginal. The task of rebuilding revolutionary organization is complicated by the military elite’s roots in an anti-colonial struggle and the regime’s co-optation of the language of the left.
The December elections have provided a focal point of resistance for the nearly year-long movement. Growing calls for civil disobedience suggest a possible escalation of tactics to include sit-ins and strikes. In the next few months, leftwing forces and independent trade unions have an opportunity to strengthen these efforts, by inserting a class analysis into the broad movement and supporting rank and file struggles to democratize unions.
It is inevitable that so long as capitalism is the dominant world system, economic and political crises will reappear. What is not predetermined is how the left will respond, how organized we will be, what strategies and what visions we will have to offer. We have little control over the objective conditions necessary for revolutionary crisis. We do have control over what we do to prepare for such a moment. And, sometimes, in some circumstances, the agency of the left can play a decisive role.
The new wave of global revolt from Iraq, to Lebanon, to Chile, and beyond offers a chance for the rebirth of revolutionary politics. New space has been opened up for alternative worldviews. As people participate in sit-ins, strikes, and protests, they develop radical ideas. The movements are creating new leaders. The left is being reconstituted in a process that is largely taking place outside of its traditional organizations.
A key task for revolutionaries today is to develop a current that organizes the radical layer within this movement by articulating a clear break with reformism.
Emma Wilde Botta is socialist activist and writer based in Oakland, California. She has written extensively on the Arab Spring, the Gulf States, Iran, and US imperialism. Her writing has appeared in TruthOut, the International Socialist Review, roape.net and Socialist Worker.
Featured Photograph: Taken by Khirani Said in Algeria on 15 March 2019.