KHARTOUM – Sudan’s military removed the country’s dictator from power on Thursday following months of protests against his 30-year rule, as a wave of popular unrest shakes North Africa in an echo of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.
President Omar al-Bashir was the second strongman forced from office amid protests this month after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria resigned following two decades in power. Protests have also taken place in Tunisia and Morocco in recent months.
The Sudanese military, which helped Bashir orchestrate a genocide in Darfur in the 2000s, said it arrested the leader, was taking power for two years and setting a 10:00 pm curfew.
Throngs of protesters seeking civilian leadership remained in the streets of the capital, Khartoum, in opposition to the military takeover.
“The revolution has only just begun!” many of the thousands chanted.
The U.S., which had increasingly coordinated with Bashir’s government to fight Islamist militants, urged the military toward a speedy handover to civilian rule and suspended ongoing discussions to expand bilateral ties.
The two leaders’ exits show how tensions that surfaced in the 2011 revolts that pushed out long-serving authoritarian leaders continue to play out across North Africa and the Middle East. An overwhelmingly young population is venting frustration with a continued lack of political freedoms and stagnating economies that have failed to generate enough jobs.
The unrest mirrors 2011 in certain respects, starting with the outpouring of protests. It differs in others, as both social movements and the regimes they oppose appear determined to draw lessons from the Arab Spring in which some countries descended into violence while others reverted to autocracy. Only one, Tunisia, transformed into an enduring democracy.
The 2011 uprisings began with protests that ousted four autocratic leaders and spawned an era of unrest and chaos including the devastating civil wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria. The recent protests challenged strongmen who framed their continued rule as the only alternative to chaos.
“Algeria and Sudan have shown that despite the high costs paid by people of Libya, Syria and Yemen after 2011, people in the region are not contented with dictatorship,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a think tank in London. “They will still rise up knowing how high the cost can be.”
In Syria and Bahrain, authoritarian leaders have suppressed revolts and re-established their grip on power. In Egypt, the government of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, which had both significant popular support and opposition when it seized power in a military coup in 2013, has stifled any political or popular opposition.
In Algeria and Sudan, hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the streets in uprisings that showed new awareness to the pitfalls that befell previous revolts, including a vigilance against military intervention.
Protesters in both countries vowed to remain in the streets to oppose military and state-backed plans for transition, instead calling for fundamental political change.
The slogans of the protests repeated some of the iconic chants of the 2011 era.
“The people demand the fall of the regime!” crowds chanted in the Sudanese capital Khartoum this week. “Leave!” they shouted in Algiers since February, urging the ailing president to depart.
Bouteflika, who is 82 years old, and Bashir, who is 75, had been two of the region’s longest-standing leaders, ruling over young populations who increasingly rejected being governed by the older generation. Bouteflika’s ailing health became a symbol of his country’s political and economic stagnation. In Sudan, Bashir, in power for 30 years, grappled with a collapsing economy.
The protests come at a moment of heightened political tension elsewhere in the region as strongmen attempt to consolidate power.
In Egypt, the government is preparing to hold a national vote on a constitutional overhaul that would allow Sisi to remain in power until at least 2034, making him de facto president for life.
Sisi’s government has jailed tens of thousands of people in a clampdown on political opponents since he came to power. He has moved to stamp out opposition movements that rose to prominence during the 2011 revolution that ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
“The problem is: how stable is stability when you are ruling over a powder keg?” said Ezzedine C. Fishere, an Egyptian political scientist and former diplomat currently teaching at Dartmouth College.
The rebellions in Algeria and Sudan also pose new challenges for Western governments. The U.S. has worked with both countries to fight extremist groups such as Islamic State, while Europe has engaged them in efforts to clamp down on migration.
“We know from recent experience that regimes that indiscriminately repress and close political space eventually prompt many to rise up, a large number to flee, some to take arms, and at least a few to be drawn to terrorist groups,” said Robert Malley, a former White House Middle East coordinator under President Obama.
President Trump has cultivated a close relationship with Sisi, and hosted him at the White House this week on the eve of the Egyptian president’s constitutional overhaul that will cement his rule. “I can just tell you he’s doing a great job,” said Trump when asked about the plan that would keep Sisi in power until at least 2034.
The new protest movements have come up against some of the same dangers posed by muscular militaries. In both Algeria and Sudan, military intervention pushed presidents Bouteflika and Bashir toward an exit, setting the stage for a retrenchment by the old regime in Algeria and new military rule in Sudan.
In Sudan, Bashir has been arrested and the army is taking over power for two years, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, Sudan’s defense minister and a longtime ally of Bashir, said Thursday. He declared the suspension of the country’s constitution and dissolution of the government and parliament.
Opposition groups rejected the announcement moments after Auf went off the air, raising the prospect of further unrest in a region already roiled by turmoil.
“We won’t stop until there is real change,” said Mohamed al Sadiq, a student in Khartoum who has been participating in the Sudan protests since they started, and has spent much of the past week in a sit-in outside the army headquarters.
How the current period of political change in North Africa unfolds will inevitably look different from the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Unlike in 2011, Western powers are eager to stay out of a messy phase of political transition and Middle Eastern powers led by Saudi Arabia are closer to the action.
Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates have invested heavily in recent years to prevent a repeat of the 2011 revolts, which they saw as a challenge to their respective monarchies. The Gulf Arab states spent billions of dollars in support of Sisi’s regime in Egypt after the former military chief took power following a coup backed by protests in 2013 that ousted his elected predecessor.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this year that Sudanese people had a right to be heard and cautioned against outside interference.
“We’re hopeful that their voices will be heard and that the transition, if there is one, will be led by them and not by outside influence,” Pompeo told Al Hurra, a U.S. government funded Arabic-language broadcaster.
A senior U.S. official said earlier this week the Trump administration saw possible connections between protests in Sudan and elsewhere in North Africa, particularly Algeria. The U.S. has monitored protests, calling on Sudanese officials to respect the rights of demonstrators and avoid violence, the official said.