Permanence has its attractions. It seems stable and without threat. Things we elect to do indefinitely are likely to be activities we enjoy, or can endure. We hope conditions that do not change might make us safe.
This reasoning is naïve, of course. And we know it, or come to learn it through experience. True permanence is as impossible as perfection, each equally out of reach.
It is empirically understood that change is inevitable, and necessary. And for a brief period at the beginning of this century, that logic was applied as zealously to government as to individual lives and circumstances.
Democratic states are capable of peaceful change. They change their governments predictably, with politicians falling from favour and being replaced in a cycle of shifting popular expectation.
States without democracy have no natural process for change – they either succumb to change which is forced from below, or remain static, paralysed by the imposition of those with power. Reform in authoritarian countries frequently comes around messily and sometimes, regrettably, accompanied by violence. Often, attempts at reform produce imperfect outcomes, of the sort that lead many to declare that the effort of change was not worth its cost.
Protests have been met with bullets; revolutions have been attempted and failed, or tried and followed by failures of government and statecraft. Sometimes, notably in Egypt and Zimbabwe, the new leader looks a lot like the old one, and the bad old days look not so different from what was heralded as a new dawn.
All this has incubated a global sense of weariness and pessimism.
Where once, less than a decade ago, protest movements in authoritarian states were covered sympathetically – or covered at all – now, this approach is less prominent. Unrest in foreign states takes its place amid broader chaos of bad-tinted news. It has no significance; it has no moral.
Democracies do not want to know; their citizens are unlikely to care.
This is perhaps why ongoing protests in Sudan, against the country’s longstanding dictator, Omar al-Bashir, have not dominated headlines as they may have done had they broken out half a decade ago.
The reported causes of the unrest are familiar enough: corruption, rising prices, bad government, hunger – all familiar prompts to protest, and sympathetic ones. The above could easily summarise the action in Tunisia at the beginning of this decade which brought about such change and such hope.
Violence, meted out by the Sudanese authorities, accounts for the affair’s slowly rising death toll, reminiscent of how other tyrannies defended themselves in years past. This is matched by the state’s attempts to intimidate, its rhetorical bid to blame ‘infiltrators’ for deaths on the streets, and Bashir’s own adamant declarations that these protests will not account for any change in the country’s government.
This is not a bid to rally the world around those protesting in Sudan. There is little likelihood of that.
Any guarantee of positive change in the country, especially with Bashir appearing as secure as he does, would no doubt be overly optimistic.
But Sudan’s protests are worthy of genuine attention. Unless otherwise convinced, publics – especially in Western democracies, especially at the present moment – seem incapable of viewing events like this abroad with interest – not without tapping into a deeper vein of pessimism.
This is not beyond reason. The Arab Spring and its headier days are almost forgotten now among pundits and the public. The possibility generated by the fall, in quick succession, of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s authoritarian rulers degenerated into a stalemate in Libya which required international assistance to break, and the slaughterhouse which Syria has become.
What room, when this has provided the background for much of this decade, is there for optimism?
What room is there for hope, when the last ten years are littered with false starts, including the Ghezi park protests in Turkey in 2013, and the Hong Kong umbrella movement the year after – both of which appeared to portend, for excitable onlookers, the beginning of reform or democratisation which never transpired?
History is a graveyard of political movements. Many of the failed attempts it contains were well-intended and seemingly necessary; but each proved, in their times, insufficient.
Instead of being a reason for unqualified pessimism, acknowledging this unavoidable attrition ought to spur global interest in the possibility – no matter how slender – that there is better to come.
What is happening in Sudan is worth watching – not with inflated expectation, but with quiet sympathy. It ought to be the hope of those able to enjoy political liberty that others in a different position acquire it as soon as possible. The attention of the world, and all that means, ought to accompany Sudan’s protesters as they encounter state power. Only then might Sudan’s dictator, and all global tyrants, notice that Bashir’s rule is not invulnerable – not while its transgressions are visible and known.
This month brought the eighth anniversary of the successful conclusion of Tunisia’s protests which, in their time, prompted the removal of dictator who had been in power for a generation and began the transition to a democracy which still stands, unoverturned, unabridged, almost a decade later. It must not be forgotten – despite the years of false starts and dimmed ambitions since – that these happy outcomes are not impossible, no matter how improbable they initially appear.
Permanence in politics and in power remains impossible, just as it is undesirable. Similarly, progress of all kinds is not inevitable; it may not be likely; but in spite of all that, it remains in reach – at least while there is a future worth hoping for.