Half a century since juntas were the rage, generals in the three largest North African countries are trying to bring them back into fashion. In Algeria and Sudan, where popular protests have recently toppled long-reigning tyrants, military cabals are re-emerging from the shadows to bid for power. In Libya, eight unstable years since the fall of a dictator, another aspiring caudillo is trying to seize control by force of arms.
The generals Sudan’s Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, Algeria’s Ahmed Gaid Salah and Libya’s Khalifa Hifter-should be careful what they wish for. The economic and political challenges that would come with success are monumental, and cannot be solved by military dictatorships. If they won’t get out of their people’s way because that is the right thing to do, they might consider that it is in their own interest to escape the burden of rule.
If they have been paying any attention to the events of the past few weeks — or indeed, of the decade — the generals will know what led to the dethroning of their predecessors: young, fearless and politically-active populations, demanding an end to misrule and fulfillment of their growing economic aspirations. They will know, too, that the protesters who brought down Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir are not going to go quietly back to their homes and campuses. Their parents’ generation were willing to give the juntas of the 1950s and 60s the benefit of the doubt. Today’s Algerians, Sudanese and Libyans know better,
Any general who wants to rule this restive populace must be prepared to crush dissent with brutal, exemplary force, or quickly demonstrate the ability to tackle the underlying economic problems. It is far from certain that the Algerian and Sudanese armies have the appetite for the former, and their leaders lack the capacity for the latter.
In both countries, soldiers sometimes joined the demonstrations, and at other times protected the protesters from other security forces. Even if these were stray examples, the generals will struggle to portray the pro-democracy movement as an existential threat to justify a sustained military campaign.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was able to paint his opponents as Sunni fundamentalists, determined to wipe out other sects. Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, as I pointed out earlier in the week, was able to exploit the fear, among Egyptians as well as Egypt’s allies, of an Islamist ascendancy. Hifter’s campaign in eastern Libya was seen as an assault on the Islamic State’s expansionist ambitions.
But the Algerian and Sudanese protesters cannot be passed off as sectarian, ethnic or tribal partisans, much less as terrorists. Any crackdown on them will attract international condemnation and economic sanctions. Hifter’s anti-terrorist credentials are fading; his Tripoli campaign has exposed his dictatorial ambitions.
If the Libyan warlord has so far demonstrated no aptitude for economic management, his supporters might at least argue that he hasn’t yet had the opportunity. The generals in Algeria and Sudan have no such excuse: as participants in the regimes of Bouteflika and Bashir, they share the blame for the ineptitude and venality that characterize their respective economies.
Even if they were to offer to turn a new leaf, they would be confronted by challenges beyond their ken: painful reforms, including cutting subsidies, eliminating state industries, opening markets, pleading for international loans and aid. These would be difficult for democratically-elected governments, too-but, by their very nature, they would have some buy-in from the population to make tough decisions, and likely get a more sympathetic ear from lenders and investors.
Algerians, Sudanese and Libyans will also be more patient with elected governments as they wrestle with economic problems, and less inclined to launch disruptive mass protests. No junta would get such consideration.
Any generals who ponder these and other problems awaiting them would reasonably conclude that power, should they succeed in acquiring it, would be more trouble than it is worth.
This leaves one overriding motivation for power: self-protection. The likes of Ibn Auf and Salah might feel they must cling on just to avoid investigations into their past sins. But that is better dealt with by bargaining with a civilian government-one that might be better disposed to a deal if the generals do the right thing now.
Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.