Reinventing Authoritarianism in the Middle East
The public sphere of the social media thus created not new imagined communities with which to initiate or rejuvenate established democratic institutions but rather new deeply divided societies . . . The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa thickened the authoritarianism plot. Since democratising change appeared at long last to be making headway across the region – with both spectacular and unprecedented magnitude – initial forecasts seesawed between hopes for sustained transitions and doubts about their viability. Often either unrealistic, impatient expectations, or fatalistic and deterministic pessimism, such prognoses were nonetheless logical analytical outgrowths of observation of postauthoritarian systems. In earlier cycles, or so-called “waves” of democratisation, the push out of centralised authority and towards representative systems was understood to be a linear process.
While emphasising the complexity of the transition process, its inherent pitfalls, the needed reworking of societal bonds as well as all manner of challenges, these assumptions and predictions still functioned on a generic logic of a forward movement. In South-Western Europe in the 1960s, in Latin America in the 1970s and in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, the sequence had been thus – illustrated by push-and-pull contests and resistance but within an overall drive for transformation. Doubts about the paradigm were already being expressed in the early 2000s, revealing a proliferation of “uncertain regimes”, “semidemocratic regimes”, “competitive authoritarianism”, “façade democracy” and “illiberal democracies”, which should have given cause for caution. The media-driven narrative, shared by policymakers and populations alike, nevertheless assumed that once unleashed, the forces of democratisation were in effect unstoppable.
The reassertion of the new-old authoritarian regimes
When between 2012 and 2017 the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa turned, for the most part, into violent civil wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria and the expected changes failed to materialise, culturalist explanations proliferated, arguing that the region was “unprepared” for democracy. Side-stepping the encouraging signs in Tunisia (through revolution) and in Morocco (through constitutional reform) – both leading the June 2017 Arab Democracy Index –, these interpretations missed the key transformation that the post–Arab Spring had yielded, namely an authoritarianism redux, albeit one that was not only novel and hybrid but also internationally connected. The new-old authoritarian regimes of the Middle East reasserted themselves in at least three innovative ways: (1) by appearing to embody change while crushing it; (2) by securing international support for, or tolerance of, their campaigns; and (3) by, more insidiously, sowing doubts amongst their populations about the need for, and value of, democracy.
In the guise of democracy
Firstly, unable to halt the rebellions, the regimes in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and across the Gulf gave the axiom “If you can’t beat them, join them” new meaning. They, however, neither adopted the values of the democratisers nor co-opted them – as they had done in the earlier 1990s cosmetic democratisation phase. Instead they revised the narrative to represent themselves as the promoters of the “real” change needed in these societies. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in Egypt where Abdelfattah al Sisi forcibly replaced Mohamed Morsi as president, while criminalising him and his supporters (the Islamic Brotherhood was declared a “terrorist” organisation), dividing the land (Tahrir Square vs. Rabaa Square) and conjuring up the image of a “new Nasser”. Similarly, in Syria, Bashar al Assad – amidst the widespread murderous repression of his opponents and a large-scale civil war – continued to claim to be the candidate for “a new democratic Syria” in presidential elections organised in June 2014, and parliamentary ones in April 2016. In Turkey, reacting both to the continuing Gezi Park– and Taksim Square–centred protests against the curtailing of liberties since May 2013 and a failed military coup attempt in July 2016, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan jeopardised the country’s decade-long promising political transition that had been heralded as a model in the region. Erdoğan organised a popular referendum in April 2017 that significantly expanded his own presidential powers in the name of democracy, which was used as “a vehicle” to legitimise such far-reaching constitutional changes.
A newfound resoluteness therefore emboldened these authoritarian regimes, whose bedrock remained, however, the hypocrisies in Western policies This unapologetic rebranding of authoritarianism in the Middle East was, secondly and more importantly, engineered through a message sent to Western governments and societies that support or tolerate the repressive actions of these hybrid regimes as key to regional stability and the “security” of the West. As in the mid-2010s intolerance, racism and societal divisions spread across Europe and the United States, Western governments proposed more militaristic foreign policies and asserted support to authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes in a notable departure from their earlier defensiveness. A newfound resoluteness and assertiveness therefore emboldened these authoritarian regimes, whose bedrock remained, however, the contradictions and hypocrisies in Western policies. A high (or low) point of this development was reached when the current US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated in May 2017 that human rights values would now take a back seat compared to economic interests or national security.
The shared sentiment that “democracy is problematic” – now voiced by conservatives, now silently tolerated by former militants – spread slowly but surely across these societies. Finally, and even more problematically, many Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes began to adopt in the late 2010s an “empire-strikes-back” disposition questioning in a deeper and more problematic fashion the very pursuit of democracy. The shared sentiment that “revolutions only bring trouble” and that “democracy is problematic” – now voiced by conservatives, now silently tolerated by former militants – spread slowly but surely across these societies. Thus expanded the repertoire of authoritarianism. What a difference six years made! Whereas in the spring of 2011, the dominant regional and international feeling had been one of “never again” should the Mubarak’s style of rule see the light of day, by the spring of 2017 a form of demand for strict authoritarian rule seemed to have crystallised as societies in the Middle East were now torn between their dissatisfaction with the current regimes and their anxieties of chaos and instability. By successfully sowing doubt as to the value of democracy, the region’s authoritarian regimes certainly benefitted from their ability to bounce back and be repressively creative. But they were also partaking of a wider global moment of neo-authoritarianism.