As a VOA foreign correspondent reporting from Sudan back in 1969, I recall distinctly a tiny mud hut within a mile or so from the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Its rough mud bricks were splashed with crude white lettering, a makeshift campaign poster back in the relatively brief period when Sudan had free and fair elections.
Recent events have raised cautious hopes among public diplomacy specialists in the West that such an era will be re-born in two African countries where dictators have been forced from power after persistent street demonstrations challenging their rule. The same divisions are at play afflicting a third African country amidst a civil war.
Unrest in one of the most promising continents, experts agree, is impeding progress. However, many more young adults and women are participating in popular uprisings appealing for change, a quantum increase since I reported from Africa and the Middle East half a century ago.
This April, military regimes in Algeria and Sudan have relinquished power by ousting long-time dictators and replacing them by like-minded colleagues determined to maintain power. This time, though, the street protests in those two countries and civil war torn Libya have continued or even grown larger after announced changes. The masses appear to be saying: “Enough is enough! We want civilian leadership.”
A Country-by-Country Glimpse
President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year iron rule was abruptly terminated April 11 by his military colleagues after the largest anti-regime demonstrations in a generation. The announcement said the junta would rule for two years until a new election. But the junta-designated successor president, Defense Minister Ibn Auf, lasted only 24 hours before stepping aside to make way for General Abdel-Fattah Burhan. Officially, in two days, Sudan had three different heads of state. According to the Associated Press, Defense Minister Auf said he was stepping aside “to preserve the unity of the armed forces.”
In Khartoum, some protesters celebrated the handovers. But others vowed to continue their demonstrations until an inclusive and representative civilian government is in place. (Defense Minister Auf announced April 12 that Omar al-Bashir would not be handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. At the World Court, the deposed president is charged with committing war crimes in Sudan, including genocide in Dafur several years ago. Any trial, the army said, would be in Sudan). Street protests continue.
The Washington Post’s Max Bearak reported April 14 that the military junta that controlled Sudan the past three decades appears to be split. General Burhan, its most recent chief (and latest designated Sudanese president) announced two steps that seemed encouraging to the protesters. He paid his respect to the demonstrators, promised to prosecute security forces that had killed some of them, and fired all Bashir-appointed state governors in Sudan. However, a Post headline stated, “As Sudan’s Protesters Bask in their Jubilation, Uncertainty is Still Swirling.”
On April 2, the 20-year rule of dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika also came to a sudden end. As in Khartoum, military commanders ousted him. That followed months of street protests when the gravely handicapped, 82-year-old president prepared to seek re-election to a fifth term. Bouteflika, who earlier ended his re-election bid, was ousted by the Algerian military as anti-regime civilian demonstrations continued.
In contrast to Sudan, the military leaders in Algiers promised fairly quick elections on a significant date, July 4 this year. The army chief of staff also said that corrupt leaders of the Algerian oil and natural gas industry would be prosecuted. He added: “The army will meet peoples’ demands… the judiciary has recovered its prerogative and can operate freely.” That was to no avail. Demonstrations continue, because there’s no indication that the army leaders will relinquish control, and that a new civilian cabinet will at last be permitted to run the country.
Algeria’s neighbor on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa is reported by Time magazine and other Western international media as being on the brink of a civil war. Hardline General Khalifa Haftar, stationed in eastern Libya after returning from self-imposed exile in the United States several years ago, is aiming to take control of the entire country.
In a lightning campaign begun in early April, General Haftar’s troops have conquered substantial areas in eastern, southern and now even in western Libya, threatening the capital city, Tripoli. (During his exile after the killing of former Libyan ruler Moammar Qaddafi in 2011, Haftar became a U.S. citizen).
According to Time, some analysts regard Haftar’s quick advances as aimed at heading off a U.N.-planned national Libyan unity conference scheduled to begin this week in Tripoli. The conference is supported by the U.N.-backed Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. Its principal aim: to discuss Libyan national re-unification and a timetable for long-delayed elections.
In Libya, the Plot Thickens
Time quotes Libya scholar Frederic Wehrey as saying: “The mask of ideology that was one division in the past has fallen away and now it’s just a scramble for pure economics and power. General Haftar’s opponents (including Prime Minister al-Serraj) fear that he’s attempting to return Libya to authoritarian rule similar to that of Muammar Qaddafi, or that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, one of his principal international supporters.”
A solution is urgent. The U.N. says that so far, at least 47 people have been killed in Libya’s civil war, and 181 people have been wounded in the battle for Tripoli. VOA’s reporter Edward Yeranian in Cairo adds that the U.N. has issued an “urgent appeal” for a two-hour truce in Tripoli’s suburbs to evacuate civilians and those wounded, as forces loyal to General Haftar continue a push aimed at taking the capital.
Peacemaking efforts are never easy in North Africa or the Middle East. A Wall Street Journal headline April 13 says it all: “Saudi Arabia Promised Support to Libyan Warlord (General Haftar) in Push to Seize Tripoli.” According to the Journal: “Days before the Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to seize the capital and attempt to unite the country under his rule, Saudi Arabia pledged tens of millions of dollars to help pay for the operation, according to senior Saudi government advisers.” General Hafter, they said, accepted the funds “to buy the loyalty of Libyan tribal leaders, recruiting and paying fighters, and other military purposes.”
“Western governments,” adds David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, “have almost universally condemned General Haftar’s advance on the capital, which upended United Nations efforts to negotiate a solution to the Libyan fighting.” The United States, for example, strongly backs the U.N. plan for reunification of the various factions in the divided country.
What is the significance of crowds of mainly youthful protesters in Libya, Sudan and Algeria —some only 15 or 16 years old — demanding political reforms and civilian governments in their countries? Can they, in the next decade or so, insist on democratic civilian rule and restore stability? According to an Iranian professor in Tehran, “people want freedom from political control and authoritarianism… West Asia and North Africa remain the only region in the world where the majority of countries are ruled in an authoritarian fashion. Other areas such as South America have moved from revolution to normalization in a much more effective way.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More