Fighting raged in Sudan this week as two rival military factions continue to seek control of the country, which has dragged it to the threshold of civil war, even as civilians had been promised that the military would hand over control of the country, four years after the former dictator Omar al-Bashir was pushed out of power.
In Tunisia, police detained Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi, according to reports. The two events, both of which took place in North Africa, illustrate the long shadow of the Arab Spring and the shattered hopes for any kind of democratic rule.
The Arab Spring's long shadow
Tunisia’s overall trajectory is bent more towards authoritarianism, while in Sudan, even if factions agree to a ceasefire, it’s unclear how the country could successfully emerge from military rule.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia. The dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia from the 1980s to 2011, ended with a wave of protests. The regime in Egypt fell soon after. But the transition to new governments was complicated. In Bahrain, protests were ended through Saudi intervention, while Syria was thrust into civil war.
In Egypt, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood led to military intervention and the rise of current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In Libya, the end of the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi led to civil war.
By contrast, Tunisia was considered a success – it had elections. Ennahda is a Tunisian party rooted in political Islam. As such, it shares similarities with the Brotherhood in Egypt or the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which means that countries hostile to the Brotherhood view it with suspicion. UAE-based news agency Al-Ain reported, for instance, that it was a “dangerous organization” and characterized the detention of Ghannouchi as the capture of the “head of the snake.” For others, the detention of the head of the party represents another attempt to stifle dissent.
Today, the country is run by Kais Saied, who has already hit controversies involving Tunisia’s need for financial support as well as the issue of migration of people from Sub-Saharan Africa via North Africa to Europe. It’s not clear what will happen next in Tunisia, but overall the trend seems clear: authoritarian rule. From the perspective of the supporters of Saied, this is exactly what the country needs in times of crisis.
Meanwhile, in Sudan, the fighting continues. The clashes between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary organization, are, in essence, between two different military leaders and the groups they control. Both groups are rooted in different parts of the country, along with their respective histories. The RSF grew out of tribal militias backed by the old regime that were used in Darfur, which today are against the Islamist elements that survived. The army, for its part, has pitched itself as confronting a “coup” and its supporters abroad tend to portray the RSF as involved in human rights abuses and as linked to Russia.
Civilian democratic rule is unlikely
In a conflict like this, it is easy to look for a clear good and bad side, but the overall reality is that whichever side emerges is unlikely to return power to civilians. The 2019 protests that led to a change in government were already subverted in 2021 by the army and RSF. Neither of the groups fighting today is fighting to bring any kind of real democratic reform.
It’s not clear where the fighting will end up, but the army appears to be holding its positions after initial setbacks. Unless the regional powers succeed in brokering a ceasefire, it is likely that the situation will only worsen.
Overall, the fighting in Sudan and the arrests in Tunisia represent important shifts in both countries. These are shifts that likely make the chances for civilian democratic rule returning even more distant.