When civil society weakens in a country, the role of politicians and the military grows. A weakened civil society leaves a vacuum that is filled by political forces and the military, which often justify their involvement by the need to protect the national interest.
Demonstrators in Algeria and Sudan protested against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. It is clear that neither opposition movement has a ready civilian candidate to replace al-Bashir or Bouteflika. Moreover, the oppositions in the two countries know chances of achieving their objectives are minimal considering the power of the military establishments.
In Sudan, the military has been in control for more than three decades. In Algeria, the army plays an oversized role in numerous ways.
Political instability in some countries has led to armies playing an increasingly stronger role on the political scene, increasing the military’s involvement in civilian affairs.
The military’s growing role in civilian matters has been a tangible success in Algeria, where the army is historically more deep-seated than in Sudan. However, Sudan achieved some success since al-Bashir was forced to transfer power from the National Congress Party to the military.
The army’s strong grip on political affairs in those two countries left no space for the elite civil society to exercise their roles freely or influence citizens’ attitudes in an organised manner. As such, they were unable to protest openly against the hegemony of the military and its interference in the political system.
Demonstrators could not, for example, lift banners with slogans such as “Down with the military regime” or signs calling for the army not to interfere in political issues. Their demands were restricted to a change of regime in the two countries, an indication that the military had taken firm control of civilian affairs.
This situation has led to a complete absence of civilian involvement in political life. What is dangerous about this is that the path chosen by the military will take a long time and will go beyond interfering in civilian matters.
Under the pretext of maintaining national security, the military seems to plan to impose a military-style social and political model. Algeria has made steady progress in this regard, so much so that Algerian civilians feel incapable of finding the proper solutions unless they cooperate and coordinate with the military institution.
Many people say that, even if a civilian leader is proposed, support and acceptance of the candidate by the military must be secured first. The army has come to be known as the maker of presidents and will not accept outside views or suggestions against its will.
In Sudan, the experiment is still in its infancy and has not been thoroughly studied. For three decades, the army has not been as effective as it is today. Al-Bashir recently granted the army greater powers to deal with political and economic national issues, in addition to its security role, which was limited to supporting the orientations of the Islamic movement in the country.
The game of role allocation in Algeria manifested itself on many occasions, significantly directing criticism only at Bouteflika, despite the fact that protesters against his bid to pursue a fifth term in office knew that the regime’s solution was in the hands of the military establishment, which seems to have learnt its lesson by avoiding direct and violent confrontation with the public so as to prepare the political scene and come out as the saviour of the people instead.
The game is different in Sudan, where there is a lack of expertise and professionalism and a lower level of loyalty and commitment to the military establishment relative to Algeria.
In addition, there is a wide spectrum of people in Sudan who have doubts about ideological positions that often take precedence over patriotism, in contrast to Algeria, where patriotism is strong. This explains why the Algerian Army gained more acceptance among citizens and more trust in its political wisdom.
The military establishment in Sudan may get the people to buy into al-Bashir’s peaceful and smooth removal from office while presenting another face internally, if protests continue. However, the trick will not work with most people if it is not accompanied by real political reforms because the army has remained distant from civilian life and left this territory to the Islamic movement.
In Algeria, people may be satisfied with Bouteflika exiting the political scene because his staying in power in such poor health is considered a humiliation to the Algerian people and will make it look like his military establishment is incapable of finding a replacement and is no longer the maker of leaders. This will negatively affect the image of the military establishment as a powerful player in the country.
Mohamed Aboelfadl is an Egyptian writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.