MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Over the course of just two weeks, two longtime autocratic rulers have been driven from power - Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria. In both cases, the question now is, what comes next? And will these countries see full regime change or just more of the same? We wanted to take up that question with Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington, D.C., bureau chief of Al Jazeera, and he's with us in our studios now in Washington, D.C., to help us understand the regional picture.
Abderrahim, thanks so much for joining us.
ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So how do you understand what's happening in the region right now?
FOUKARA: Well, I understand it as a continuation of what started happening way back in 2011. A lot of governments in the region thought that at some point after 2011, things started to go back to normal. But obviously, many of the reasons why we had the 2011 uprisings in the first place have not been solved. And obviously, everyone in the region, whether they are peoples or governments - they're watching to see where the region goes to from here in light of what's happening in Sudan and Algeria.
MARTIN: And what do you think message the demonstrators are drawing from the events of 2011 - and also, what message you think the governing bodies are drawing from the events of 2011? Because, for example, in Sudan, the defense minister has said that a military council will rule for the next two years before any democratic elections are held. You know, it's hard to see that the protesters will find that acceptable. So I'm just wondering what you see. Like, what are both sides drawing from the sort of recent past about what the path forward should be?
FOUKARA: The protesters in Sudan - they say they've learned a lot from what happened way back in 2011. They've learned not to trust the military. They've learned to say that the military's role is basically to secure the border and to maintain stability - not to run the people's affairs. To what extent will the military in Sudan and the militaries throughout the region actually watching what's happening in Sudan will be convinced by that remains to be seen.
MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about what the roots of this are? Because I think many people with even a cursory understanding of the region will know that these leaders have been in power for many, many years, that economic stagnation has been the rule, not the exception. So what are the sparks? Like, what is it that finally caused people to say, enough?
FOUKARA: Well, I mean, in the case of Sudan, the Sudanese, they've had two revolutions. They had one in the '60s, and they had one in the '80s. And in each one of those, obviously, the developments yielded a civilian government, but then the military took over. The protesters - they tried to avoid that same fate for a third time. Life is hard in Sudan, as it is in many other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Prices are high. Bread is not always easy to come by. Salaries are very low. There's a lot of unemployment. There's a youth bulge. Not many jobs are available. And add to that the issue of freedoms. A lot of people are in jail. A lot of people have been in jail in Sudan and other parts of the region.
This spark, obviously, this time round was bread, higher - high bread prices. You know, the government was squeezed for funds - although its critics are saying there's a lot of corruption, that there's a lot of money that's been embezzled and stolen. But here we are. Now Bashir is gone. A military council has taken its place, and the Sudanese are trying to fumble the next step into their future.
MARTIN: And what about in Algeria? What about with Bouteflika? I mean, he's been suffering health problems. He hasn't been visible. What is the spark there?
FOUKARA: There are similar reasons in terms of the hardships of daily life. And in the case of Algeria, the spark was that the former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who to all intents and purposes - I mean, when you see him in - on TV, he's in a wheelchair. He doesn't always seem to be conscious. And yet, it was announced that he was going to run for a fifth term. Algerians took to the street to say no. We cannot have that. He must be just a puppet. There are other players behind him trying to manipulate the situation for their own advantage. That's how it started.
MARTIN: In each of these cases, in Sudan and in Algeria, is there a sort of an opposition figure like we've seen in Venezuela, for example, where Juan Guaido has sort of - has become recognized as the face of the opposition - like, the preferred leader? Is that the case in either of these places?
FOUKARA: That has been a unique characteristic of all these revolutions throughout North Africa and the Middle East since 2011. They have not actually produced a particular figurehead, so to speak, to lead them. And maybe that was done by design because the people who have risen against their governments - they don't always trust the conventional opposition, and they often feel that it's in cahoots with the regime that they're trying to topple.
But we have seen the downside of that in terms of these protesters needing somebody to rally around and, you know, make their word heard much more forcefully than it would have been otherwise. In the specific case of Sudan, that's also - definitely that has been the case of a lot of protests, a lot of protesters, but so far, we haven't seen one person who can take all these events and galvanize them to actually help push for change. And the opinion is different whether that's a good thing or or a bad thing. It depends who from the protesters you talk to.
MARTIN: And so, finally, what is the U.S. role in all this? Or how has the U.S. responded? I mean, in recent years, you know, obviously, Sudan has been an international pariah because of its treatment of the - because of its conduct in Darfur, the military's conduct in Darfur. But the U.S. has been cooperating with Sudan on intelligence in recent years. So what's the U.S. role now? Or how is the U.S. responding?
FOUKARA: Well, the stakes for the U.S. in all these places are very high. They are higher in Sudan than they are in Algeria, for example. Algeria is much more tied to France and so on. In the case of Sudan, there's the issue of Darfur. There's the issue of relations between North Sudan and the young South Sudan. And, you know, the U.S. was very supportive of the independence of South Sudan.
But there's also the issue of terrorism, and the U.S. is very invested in that. Sudan was under sanctions, but the U.S. did get to a point where it was working with Bashir very closely in combating terrorism. So it's obviously a very complex situation. Sudan is a central country to different regional groupings and central to a lot of issues that are of interest to various players, including the United States.
MARTIN: That's Abderrahim Foukara. He is the bureau chief of news for Al Jazeera in Washington, D.C., and he was kind of to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Abderrahim, thanks so much for talking to us once again.
FOUKARA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.