The advent of protests in Sudan raises interesting issues about the origins of the Arab protest movements, a vexed question that has been the object of much speculation and analysis. Candidates have ranged from US academic Gene Sharp, to social media, to Iran, to Hamas, to the CIA or another arm of US government in an attempt – in Egypt anyway – to help get rid of a leader whose final days were dragging on, threatening instability in a country of great importance to the United States because of its historic accomodation with Israel.
The Sudanese in fact brought down a leader before, Jaafar al-Numeiri in 1985, when the people of Khartoum took to the streets against a cranky, leftist-turned-Islamist dictator and the military stepped in to oust him, returning power to civilian rule a year later. Why this was airbrushed out of the story of the Arab uprisings is a pertinent question. Media like bold statements, so the ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia had to be depicted as a first in modern Arab history. Sudan could be overlooked as “not really Arab” (whatever that means), and who could remember Numeiri any more anyway.
Why was Numeiri’s fall not the catalyst for change that Ben Ali’s was? One thing that jumps out is the sense of political and economic strain that many regimes had come to in 2011 because of their sheer age. In the mid-80s Mubarak had only been in power for a few years; he was seen as a young leader and there was still hope among many people – however misplaced it might appear now – that he would deliver on political, economic and social justice. Gaddafi was at the peak of his power and fervour as ruler. Tunisia was straining after years of Bourguiba but it took a coup two years later to install Ben Ali. Yemen was two countries on their way to becoming one.
In 2011 the importance of Arab countries to the United States had increased to such a level that Washington was entangled heavily at the security level in backing a range of Arab dictatorships – “moderates” who shifted accordingly on Israel – because they cooperated against the al-Qa’ida network. The size of the interference made the ability of people on the street to overturn the heads of entrenched systems all the more striking, and for that reason the uprisings deserved all the attention they got. In that sense they represented the people of the region daring to take control of their destiny from post-colonial regimes which had, in Fanon’s imagining, continued the work of the colonial in repression. The significance of this was implicitly understood and resonated with people everywhere.
That’s all well and good, but it needs media to carry the information. When Numeiri was overthrown there was no al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya or other Arab purveyors of the televisual image to cover it. Putting aside questions of manipulation by channels such as al-Jazeera – with its claims of a “million” in a Tahrir Square does not have that capacity – it was the instant nature of media and the manner in which the satellite revolution has made the world more of a “village”, more connected than ever before, that really made the difference. A narrative that involved everyone in the region was created instantaneously. In the aftermath many countries have tried to clamp down on social media or monitor it more tightly, but I would say it’s really the televisual image, which is then reproduced for all on social media, that made the difference.