Ian Birrell

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


The revolution in Sudan has an icon. The image of a young student was caught on scores of mobile phones as she stood on a car roof in Khartoum, finger pointing dramatically skywards as she urged on a crowd demanding a dictator step down.

The glorious picture of Alaa Salah, the 22-year-old captured against the evening skyline in long white robes and gold jewellery, woke the world to seismic events taking place in this huge north African nation. An insurgency, that began with street protests over rising bread prices four months ago in the city of Atbara, has led to the sudden deposing of Sudan’s strongman leader, Omar al-Bashir, after 30 years in power.

The generals stepped in to remove him, the only world leader wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Even some soldiers joined the protests. A military council will now remain in control for two years before elections supposedly take place.

The extraordinary sight of exuberant Sudanese crowds waving flags and chanting for freedom, peace and justice comes just days after mass demonstrations led to the departure of another long-serving and elderly north African autocrat: Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria.

Rarely seen in recent years, confined to a wheelchair since a stroke, 82-year-old Bouteflika had nonetheless sought to cling to office by standing in a fifth election. But, in the face of rising unrest, the army that gave him power in 1999, after brutal civil war, finally dumped him. Bouteflika was replaced by an elderly ally as caretaker president and pledges of free elections were made.

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Unsurprisingly, these, too, failed to quell demands for more significant changes to end cronyism and corruption. After tear gas was turned again on crowds bearing placards reading ‘Systeme Dégage’ (System Get Lost), the army chief announced a July election date and promised that judges would investigate ‘the whole gang’ – the term used for Bouteflika’s cabal.

These are tense moments in nations that have been trapped for decades under grim regimes, and which are both still under the grip of generals. They are like belated echoes of the Arab Spring, which swept the region with such immense consequences eight years ago. The impression is intensified by the fact that one general in Libya is trying to grab the capital Tripoli with his tanks and planes, while another – the former spy chief who crushed Egypt’s revolution after a coup – has been visiting Washington.

Each country is different, of course, and each protest has local patterns. Activists are certainly more cautious than was the case eight years ago. In Algeria and Sudan, they say they have learned lessons of the past, when despots were ousted only to be replaced by bloody chaos or harsh counter-revolution.

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One country in the region did turn its revolution into positive change, though: Tunisia. And its former president, Moncef Marzouki has described the peaceful rotation of power in Algeria as “one of the most successful revolutions of the Arab Spring“.

It’s true that these uprisings all have a communality that reaches back to 2011, linking them directly to that revolutionary fervour that shook the world after a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire to protest corruption.

The roots of current discontent can be found in the same foetid swamp that gave birth to the protests of eight years ago, nurtured by the arrogance of self-serving autocracies. These young societies are frustrated by rampant youth unemployment, infuriated by state-captured capitalism, dismayed by corruption, inflamed by social media and angered by rich old men who refuse to share power or wealth.

In Algeria – Africa’s biggest country – more than two-thirds of its fast-growing population of 42 million is under 30 years old. These are the ones most affected by rising unemployment, with almost 30% of them jobless.

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Its well-trained army swiftly stopped riots in 2011 over corruption and economic dislocation, aided by painful memory of the savagery of its war against Islamists during the 1990s after elections were cancelled. The anger, though, over bad governance, economic woes and lack of freedom has remained profound.

The sparks vary from uprising to uprising. It was the tripling of bread prices and flour shortages amid rampant inflation in Sudan – a country where almost half the population lives below the poverty line and the end of an oil boom has devastated the economy. But the chant is the same. “Al-sha’b Yurid Isqat al-Nizam” (The people demand the downfall of the regime) was heard in Tunisia in 2011, and Sudan in 2019. It came from the mouth of one courageous army colonel in Khartoum. And was the potent phrase scrawled by teenage schoolboys on the wall of their school in Daraa one night after a game of football, which proved to be the innocent start of Syria’s conflagration.

In the West, we focused on the Arab Spring’s failures, transfixed by the tragedy of Syria, the terror in Egypt and the meltdown of Libya. Yet we largely ignored that the conditions that lay behind the original uprisings remained firmly in place, fuelling that explosive desire for dignity, freedom and social justice.

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Revolutions take time to brew, says the Egyptian-born, Cambridge-based historian Khaled Fahmy. In an essay he wrote four years ago, he pondered how far back we might trace the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, finally asking if the Tahrir Square protests were really rooted in the foundation of the modern Egyptian state in 1805.

Fahmy concluded that five factors thwarted the transformation of Arab nations. These include the impact of foreign intervention, the scourge of petro-dollars funding despotic Gulf regimes determined to stop democracy, and the surge of political Islam. “Despite these deep problems, I remain confident that the future is ours and our revolution will prevail…it would be naive to expect its victory overnight with one decisive knockout blow.”

He is right. Just as the demands of the French revolution did not dissolve when Napoleon Bonaparte took control in 1799, so the pressures of these troubled societies are still bubbling beneath the surface.

There was naivety aplenty in 2011, not least from journalists such as myself who gave too much credence to middle-class protesters they met on the streets and too little weight to the impoverished masses slaving away in fields and factories. The dreams of democracy founded on protest were soon dashed on the rocks of reality.

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And some sceptics still dismiss hopes of democracy in these benighted societies, making bigoted assumptions about Arabs and Muslims, or sneering at their right to have the same freedoms that we enjoy as they endorse cruel and thieving regimes. We have seen the pendulum swing in the United States – still the global superpower despite mounting challenge from China – from a foolish president who thought he could impose democracy on despotic states, to an even more foolish president who flirts with vile autocrats.

But from Syria to Sudan to Saudi Arabia, the choice and issues remain the same for those of us lucky enough to live in democracies: do we support the people pushing for more open societies and stand up for human rights? Or do we espouse such ideals at home, while ignoring them abroad in a misguided search for stability and perhaps a bit more trade.

The answer is clear, as seen in both Algeria and Sudan: never expect the status quo to last in places where aspiration is stifled by autocracy. This is not historical determinism, simply a reflection of human desires and needs. For that brave female student in a protest in Sudan showed the same demand for basic dignity and fairness that led to the Arab Spring – and the pressures in places filled with frustrated young people cannot be contained for ever.