Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk
Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk | Article 4

Reinventing Authoritarianism in the Middle East

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Between 2012 and 2017 the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa turned, for the most part, into violent civil wars. Five years after the Arab Spring, the new-old authoritarian regimes have found innovative ways to reassert themselves.

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 . . . Cindy Steenekamp and Pierre du Toit, 2016The 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

Over 2 millions protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo after Hosni Mubarak's speech chanting that they will go to his palace the day after to force him to resign. Mubarak resigned the day after and the Military took control. February 11, 2011
By Jonathan Rashad/CC BY 2.0

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.

western hypocrisy

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.

questioning DEMOCRACY

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.

By Prof. Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou
Department of International History
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Read also Democratisation in the 21st Century: Reviving Transitology, ed. by Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou and Timothy D. Sisk (Routledge, 2017)

Header image caption: Girl passing by posters of candidates of Iran’s Parliamentary Election in Tehran, Iran. 21 February 2016.

Young People Believing Region Better Off After Revolution (in percent)

Source: ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey

Definitions of Democracy

Basic definition

Democracy can be defined as, literally, the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratiā, coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the 5th century BCE. At heart, democracy is based on three principles: popular sovereignty, political participation and political contestation. Democracies may take on different constitutional forms (constitutional monarchy, republic) and modes of territorial organisation (unitary, federal).

Thin vs. thick description of democracy

The ballot box (free, fair and regular elections) defines democracy at its most basic. This minimalist or “thin” conception of democracy can be opposed to a more substantial or “thick” definition holding that in addition to elections, democracy needs to satisfy a series of further constitutional, liberal and/or social criteria.

Direct democracy

In a direct democracy the people govern sovereignly by congregating in popular assemblies and taking decisions by popular vote (usually by show of hands, as in the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus). There is no political representation. For thousands of years direct democracy remained the principal model of democracy as exerted in city-states or other small-scale polities.

Example: ancient Athens.

Representative democracy

A representative or electoral democracy is a type of democracy where the people govern indirectly through elected representatives. It requires a set of political institutions different from those of direct democracy such as parliaments and regular elections. Representative democracy became prevalent in the 19th century with the emergence of large nation-states.

Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is a subgenre of representative democracy defined not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers and the protection of basic civil liberties (freedom of speech, assembly and religion). Liberal democracies limit the exercise of executive power and majority rule through constitutions ensuring independent courts, the protection of minorities, and basic human rights.

Semidirect democracy

Semidirect democracy is a mixed form of democracy where elected representatives govern and legislate but the citizens remain sovereign through referenda, initiatives and recalls. Even though today only Switzerland is a semi-direct democracy in the formal sense, many democracies have institutionalised elements of expression of popular will such as referenda.

Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch of government depends on the support of the parliament, often expressed through a vote of confidence. The party that wins the largest number of congressional seats selects the prime minister, who controls the legislative process. The executive is divided into a head of government and a ceremonial head of state.

Examples: Australia, Germany, India, Spain.

Presidential democracy

Presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative branch. The parliament controls the budget, legislates, approves appointments to cabinet positions and ratifies foreign treaties. The president appoints cabinet members, commands the army and serves as the head of state and the head of government.

Examples: Argentina, Indonesia, United States, Venezuela.

Semi-presidential democracy

Semi-presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where a president exists alongside a prime minister and a cabinet. It differs from the parliamentary system in that it has a popularly elected head of state, who is more than a purely ceremonial figurehead, and from the presidential system in that the cabinet, although named by the president, is responsible to the legislature, who can move a motion of no confidence.

Examples: France, Russia, Tunisia.

Participatory democracy

Participatory democracy refers to a regime where citizens participate actively in public decision-making. Instruments to broaden citizen participation include e-democracy and e-voting.

Deliberative democracy

In a deliberative democracy authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law’s legitimacy. Jürgen Habermas has made a fundamental contribution to deliberative democracy through his work on communicative rationality and the public sphere.

Voting systems: proportional, plurality and majority

In a proportional system parties obtain seats proportionally to the votes they win. In a plurality system, candidates who win most votes in an electoral district are elected. In a majority system, candidates who win more votes than all others combined in an electoral district are elected. Proportional representation usually leads to a multiparty system whereas plurality and majority election favour bipartisanism.

United States






This table shows the evolution of democracy in the USRussiaUgandaHungaryTurkeyVenezuela over 10 years. Arrows indicate the improvement (↗) or deterioration (↘) of a given indicator between 2006 and 2016. One arrow per 0.4 variance on a scale of 10.

Aspects of democracy Trend
Legislative constraints on the executive ↘↘
Judicial constraints on the executive = ↘↘
Government censorship (internet) ↘↘ = ↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Government censorship (media) ↘↘ = ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Freedom of association
Freedom house rule of law =
Freedom of academic and cultural expression ↘↘ ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Source: V-Dem Website provides 350 indicators and indices on democracy.
Caricature de @Chappatte - www.chappatte.com Caricature de Beatriz Tirado

Source: Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU)

What Is Illiberal Democracy?


In his 1997 contribution to Foreign Affairs, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracies as “democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, [but] are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms”.

Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is an Indian American journalist and author with a BA from Yale College and a PhD in Government from Harvard University. He worked as Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and as managing editor of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 2000 (a post he was appointed to at only 28 years old). Zakaria has also been a columnist and editor for Newsweek, Time Magazine and The Atlantic. Currently he hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS – CNN’s flagship international affairs programme – and writes columns for The Washington Post. Foreign Policy named Zakaria one of its top 100 global thinkers. He is the author of five books, including The Future of Freedom (2003), The Post-American World (2008) and In Defense of a Liberal Education (2016).

15 characteristics
  • Consolidation of power in the executive
  • Charismatic leader
  • Erosion of the independence of the judiciary
  • Weakening status of the parliament
  • Recourse to direct democracy (plebiscites/referenda)
  • Populist rhetoric/propaganda
  • Discrimination of minorities
  • Monitoring and moulding of civil society
  • Media and internet censorship
  • Curbs on academia and educational curricula
  • Targeted repression of opponents
  • Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly
  • Disregard for rule of law and human rights
  • Misuse of state resources (cronyism)
  • Emasculation of the electoral process
  • Forging of external enemies
Academic criticism

Illiberal democracy as a concept has been criticised for its diffuse meaning and close proximity to related, almost synonymous terms, such as: limited democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regimes, dysfunctional democracy, deconsolidating democracy, defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism. According to Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, the concept does not distinguish sharply enough democracies which have, in fact, never been truly democratic but claim to be so, from regimes that actually have successfully become or transitioned toward genuine democracy but are backsliding toward autocracy. Others, such as Jørgen Møller, have argued that electoral democracy is, if measured adequately, a better measure than illiberal democracy since truly competitive elections only take place in liberal democracies. Finally, it has also been contended that illiberal democracy is an unfortunate and potentially noxious misnomer since it offers the opportunity to populists and autocrats to promote illiberalism while preserving the veil of democracy.

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