Tue, Apr 23, 2019 - Page 9 News List

What Sudan tells us about 21st-century coups

Ousting aging autocrats just to install new ones suits the global aspirations of Russia and China

By Peter Apps  /  Reuters, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

Barely a week before Zimbabwe’s military ousted former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in November 2017, its top commander visited Beijing. Exactly what he discussed with his Chinese People’s Liberation Army counterparts has never been disclosed.

However, the conclusion General Constantino Chiwenga reached seemed clear — that the 93-year-old leader was losing his grip and that the only way to save the broader regime was to get him out.

Now it has been the turn of former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to be ousted by the military that had kept him in power for almost three decades.

That followed a similar cycle of protest in Algeria earlier this year that also concluded with former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s removal by an army he once led.

Both countries are now entering a messy period of transition — but the lesson from similar events elsewhere would be that while the figure at the top might change, the military-dominated power structures beneath might prove much harder to shift from power.

The 2011 Arab Spring that toppled strongmen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen — and brought catastrophic war to Syria — largely bypassed Sudan and Algeria.

However, popular frustrations with the leadership in both countries have been simmering for years. The earlier revolts demonstrated several possible outcomes — almost none particularly close to what the initial demonstrators hoped for. In Yemen and Libya, the removal of a dictator was followed by outright war and chaos — while Syria demonstrates just how much brutality and energy such regimes can exert to survive. In Egypt, a period of rule by the Muslim Brotherhood was followed by another military takeover.

The transition from one strongman to another suits not just those in charge, but also the two nations that have since 2011 emerged as much more powerful supporters of autocratic systems — Russia and China. Events in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Syria in particular have shown both countries capable of subtly shaping events, even if they cannot outright control them.

Indeed, in some respects, perhaps among the most interesting lessons of these most recent coups is what they might tell us about future leadership change in Russia and China, the world’s two most powerful autocratic states.

Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) nor Russian President Vladimir Putin appears at any immediate risk — indeed, having eradicated rivals and pushed their personalities on their countries like no one since Mao Zedong (毛澤東) or Joseph Stalin, they are arguably at the peak of their powers.

However, that, of course, could equally have once been said of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Sudan’s al-Bashir, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and a host of other ultimately deposed leaders.

Xi and Putin are aged 65 and 66 respectively, a decade younger than al-Bashir, and almost a quarter of a century more youthful than Mugabe when he was forced from power.

However, the lesson for both is that age and opposition will catch up with them eventually.

Both Moscow and Beijing found the Arab Spring alarming, not least because of fears that Western-backed unrest might threaten them at home as well.

Putin’s Syria intervention showed just how much effort Moscow was willing to make to shore up its allies and interests, demonstrated once again with more limited support in Venezuela.

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