Eight years ago, the media were full of reports on the Arab Spring – the chain of protests and uprisings across the Middle East that threatened so many of the region’s authoritarian regimes, raising hopes that in most cases were to be cruelly disappointed.
At the time, many compared it to the European revolutions of 1848, and so far the comparison has held. By the mid-1850s, those revolutions looked to have been a failure: autocrats were back in power, revolutionaries were in prison or in exile. But in reality the old regimes could never again be the way they were.
Similarly in the Middle East. The old order has not disappeared, and in countries like Egypt and Syria it has staged bloody comebacks. But it has been badly shaken, and the region’s autocrats will never be secure in the possession of power the way most of them felt before 2011.
Witness Algeria. Protests in 2011 against its long-serving president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, were relatively mild, and in 2014, despite further unrest, he stood again for re-election. I remarked at the time that “If there is any life left in the Arab Spring, Bouteflika is taking a serious risk in defying public opinion.”
The fact that he went on to win, supposedly with 81.5% of the vote, seemed to confirm that he and his fellow-autocrats had little to fear. So despite being aged 82 and incapacitated by a stroke, Bouteflika this year announced his intention to run again.
But this time the story changed. Mass protests across the country forced him to back down and announce a plan for his retirement, and then, when they continued, earlier this week produced his resignation.
Whether the military, traditionally the most powerful institution in Algeria (as in much of the region), will allow a fully-fledged transition to democracy remains to be seen. But at least the people of Algeria have shown that they cannot be taken for granted, and that there is a limit to what they will tolerate from their rulers.
Another two autocrats, while still standing, are under serious threat. Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, in power since 1989 and indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for crimes against humanity, has been faced since before Christmas by demonstrations calling for his resignation.
Bashir’s response has been a mixture of repression and concessions; a new government was appointed last month and negotiations promised with the opposition, but continued protests last week were met with tear gas.
It’s unlikely that Bashir would have many scruples about ordering a real crackdown if he thought he could get away with it. He may be biding his time, or he may be looking for a face-saving compromise. But his long-term prospects do not look good.
The third autocrat in trouble is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. Turkey is not an Arab state, but it is intimately connected with the ongoing troubles of its neighbors, particularly Syria, and Erdoğan’s slow but steady stifling of Turkish democracy has proceeded in tandem with the revival of Middle Eastern authoritarianism.
Last weekend, however, that process hit a snag when the opposition made gains in local elections. Based on preliminary results, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won the mayoralty in both Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, as well as several other major towns.
But Istanbul in particular was very close, with a reported margin of about 25,000 votes, and the opposition is clearly worried that Erdoğan will find a way to have it overturned.
If he does, it will be another landmark on the country’s authoritarian road. For now, however, the opposition has been given a big morale boost, with hopes that the steps already taken – including the new constitution of 2017 and Erdoğan’s narrow election victory last year – have not yet done irreparable harm to democracy in Turkey.