Algiers, Khartoum… that trembling moment

In the midst of palpable political fatigue in Europe, it does good to look to Algiers and Khartoum, where for the past several weeks hundreds of thousands of citizens have been fighting on the public stage for self-empowerment. By Charlotte Wiedemann

By Charlotte Wiedemann

Are these revolutions? From the point of view of political science, for there to be a revolution, there must be a sustainable change of elites and thus the situation in both countries remains open. From a philosophical point of view, however, a revolution is not defined by its future outcome; rather, it is exactly that trembling moment we are currently able to observe from a distance, when a large number of people gathered together can be seen as the starting point of something new. The moment when they themselves feel as though they are standing on a threshold (as Foucault put it when he was an eyewitness to the Iranian Revolution in 1978/79) – on the crest of a wave from where they can see with closed eyes what had been unimaginable just moments before.

Then the impossible can happen: five tycoons arrested in Algeria during a single weekend and on the next weekend the most powerful intelligence service chiefs behind bars.

Despite everything

In such trembling, fleeting moments, people trust each other as social beings, even under the most adverse circumstances and they show themselves in what could be called a new skin. In the Sudanese capital, on the fringes of the never-ending sit-in, no shops are being looted despite abject misery and the high prices that triggered the uprising. And there is an absence of fear towards the military that we have seen only in historical moments.

Remarking on the discipline and peacefulness with which hundreds of thousands recently took to the streets in Algiers for the eleventh time in a row, the Algeria expert Sabine Kebir noted that we are witnessing here "citizens capable of powerful self-organisation", something we would not have thought possible in a country that was torn apart by civil war as recently as the 1990s.

Women there, as here, are on the front lines of this development. Sudanese women, who were still being punished for wearing trousers just a short time ago, are now laying claim to half of the official posts in the future government.

What about Iran?

At this point it is advisable to broaden our view of these Arab-African events to include Iran. Here, too, we can see, under quite different circumstances, an increase in the phenomenon of fearless speech and in civil uprising. During the recent catastrophic flooding, people put more faith in a nationwide teachers' association to distribute relief goods than in the state.

Protests in front of army headquarters in Khartoum on 2 May 2019 (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Dem Druck der Straße nachgegeben: Nach monatelangen Massenprotesten hatte die sudanesische Armee Langzeitdiktator Omar al-Baschir am 11. April gestürzt und einen Militärrat eingesetzt. Die Proteste vieler Sudanesen gingen indes weiter. Die Zivilgesellschaft fordert eine baldige Demokratisierung mit dem Ziel einer zivilen Regierung. Hardliner im Militär wollen aber den Machterhalt der Armee.

Iran, Sudan and Algeria are connected above all by the fact that in all three countries history was written by an epic rebellion against Western white hegemony. The Mahdi uprising in Sudan in the late nineteenth century was a religiously inspired rebellion against the Egyptian-British rule and the first – at least – momentarily successful anti-colonial uprising in Africa. Algeria gained legendary status with its deadly war of liberation from the French. And Iran forced the West to respect Islam as a political force.

No theory and no model

Today these three countries stand out due to their lack of any ideology or theology of liberation. Nationalism, which Algeria was once emblematic of, lost its lustre long ago and in Sudan and in Iran political Islam led to authoritarian regimes and dysfunctional systems. There is no theory, no model on which the struggles for freedom and self-determination taking place outside the Western metropolises can be based.

In Iran, the Islamic Republic has long been shored by the lack of a viable alternative. And the opposition in Algeria and Sudan has learnt from the experiences in Egypt and Syria: from the betrayal by the Egyptian military, which embraced the opposition in Cairo only to crush it afterwards and from the tragic descent into violence in Syria, which wrested the agenda from the hands of the civilian insurgents. The slogans chanted by today’s protesters show that anti-colonialism must be vigilant in more than one direction and must also take a stand against the reactionary influence of the Gulf monarchies.

Respect for civil and political engagement

Protests against Bouteflikaʹs projected fifth term in office on 19 April 2019 (photo: picture-alliance)
"For a new Republic": remarking on the discipline and peacefulness with which hundreds of thousands recently took to the streets in Algiers for the eleventh time in a row, the Algeria expert Sabine Kebir noted that we are witnessing here "citizens capable of powerful self-organisation", something we would not have thought possible in a country that was torn apart by civil war as recently as the 1990s

We can only watch with silent respect how the protagonists of this new movement are navigating these rough waters. In Algiers, the idea is making the rounds that municipal people's committees could lead a constitutional discussion and send their elected candidates to the next-higher level. In Sudan, the professional associations are the main actors, half-trade union, half-guild: doctors, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, accountants. The alliance there between the educated middle class and the poor is something that seems impossible in Iran (not to mention in Europe).

So, this Ramadan, let us pay respect to this civil and endangered public spirit. Because, of course, Khartoum and Algiers are emblematic during these weeks of the Muslim culture and way of life. A movement can be called Muslim not only when a decidedly political Islam or Islamism dominates the scene. Both Algerians and Sudanese have integrated Friday prayers into their protest rituals, marking their rhythm, but religion is not determining the discourse – unlike in Iran in 1979, when many secular members of the opposition were involved but without a political language of secularity.

Today it seems to be the other way around: religion and the religious are involved, but Islam is not being proffered as solution.

Progressive people in Europe of a certain age perhaps have some connection to Algeria, as some of the great names of anti-colonialism include Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon. But Sudan? The strangeness of a Muslim Africa is reflected in the utter lack of interest and this can even be observed among European Muslims. Black role models? European Islam tends to be Eurocentric – another thing to keep in mind for Ramadan.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor