What the return of the Arab strongman means for the Middle East

Rulers who demonize all Islamists, other opponents as terrorists who must be suppressed nurture a self-fulfilling prophecy, allowing them to repeat pattern of repression that leads to radicalization.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waves as he arrives to the opening ceremony of the New Suez Canal (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waves as he arrives to the opening ceremony of the New Suez Canal
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 On Oct. 18, Egypt began the first phase of parliamentary elections, but many voters shunned the balloting and turnout is estimated at a measly 15 percent. Most Egyptians seem to have decided that the election results are a foregone conclusion, with a new parliament that will kowtow to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s iron-fisted regime in the absence of any meaningful opposition.
When Sisi and the Egyptian military ousted the country’s first democratically elected president two years ago, they promised a quick return to democracy and civilian rule. But like much else in Egypt’s modern history, those promises did not materialize. Instead, Sisi has turned into a strongman. And like the strongmen of an earlier generation in the Middle East, Sisi has dangled the promise of reform while finding new ways to consolidate his power.
With most opposition banned or imprisoned, the new legislature will be stacked with Sisi loyalists after the second round of voting ends in late November. The elections underscore how fully Sisi has transitioned into the role of strongman, and how far the Middle East has moved from the early promise of the 2011 Arab uprisings, which toppled then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other dictators. Sisi is the latest in a line of military strongmen to rule Egypt, since the charismatic Gamal Adel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952.
Egypt spiraled into a cycle of state-sanctioned violence, repression and vengeance soon after the military removed Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from power in July 2013. The new military-backed government launched an aggressive campaign to suppress all political opponents, hunt down leaders of the Brotherhood who fled after the coup, and undo many of the gains made during the 2011 revolution. Human rights groups estimate that the Egyptian regime is holding more than 40,000 political prisoners, many of them supporters of the Brotherhood.
Egypt has avoided the large scale post-revolutionary bloodshed in Syria, Libya and Yemen. But after Morsi’s ouster, Islamic militants intensified an insurgency centered in the North Sinai, killing hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and policemen. Many of the militants later declared their allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Sisi, who was Morsi’s defense minister and the coup’s main instigator, was elected president in May 2014 with nearly 97 percent of the vote - he faced a single, obscure opponent. Since then, Sisi has restored many elements of military rule, returned officials from Mubarak’s former regime to power and issued laws by fiat since Egypt has not had a parliament for three years. (In June 2012, an Egyptian court dissolved the new parliament, which had been elected in late 2011 and was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.)
For a short while, it seemed that the era of rule by strongmen in the Middle East was coming to an end. In October 2011, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was captured hiding in a drainage pipe near his hometown of Sirte, and he was beaten and shot dead by rebels, bringing his 42 years in power to an ignoble end. His contemporaries were the likes of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, military men from poor families and hardscrabble towns who fought their way to the top, riding the wave of revolutionary sentiment that swept the Arab world in the 1960s and ’70s.
Their inspiration was Egypt’s Nasser and his Free Officers Movement, who pledged to rid the Arab world of the vestiges of colonial rule. Nasser’s rousing speeches, heard across the region via the newly invented transistor radio, kindled visions of Arab unity. It was a time of upheaval, in which the merchant and feudal elites - the allies of the old European colonial powers - were losing their grip. At first, Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad appeared to embody a promising new era of reform. But these leaders and others quickly suppressed any opposition, executed their critics and squandered national resources.
By 2011, one by one, the strongmen began to teeter and fall. A new generation of revolutionaries had fostered a revitalized sense of pan-Arab identity united around demands for broad political and social rights. As the protests that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, each uprising was inspired by the others. A vanguard of civilian leaders emerged from the revolts, and although they drew on some of the old Arab nationalist doctrine - anti-colonial rhetoric and resistance to Israel - they were well aware of the failures of the strongmen and their generation.
The protesters no longer accepted a social contract in which they effectively made peace with government repression, arbitrary laws, state-run media and censorship, and single-party rule, in exchange for security and stability. Instead, they demanded justice, freedom, and dignity. “The people should not fear their government,” read a popular placard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution. “Governments should fear their people.”
In mid-June, an Egyptian court upheld the death penalty against Morsi, the first Muslim Brotherhood leader to assume the presidency of an Arab country. He was initially sentenced to death in May, along with more than 100 co-defendants, for taking part in an alleged prison break. It was the latest in a series of sham trials and mass death sentences decreed by the judiciary since the coup. The Brotherhood’s recent experience in Egypt shows that authoritarian and secular forces, which often fare poorly at the ballot box, will mobilize to undermine the Islamists before they have had a chance to rule fully.
When it deposed Morsi, the military insisted it was acting on the will of the Egyptian people, who had grown disenchanted with his clumsy rule and disastrous economic policies. But the army didn’t stop there: It arrested Morsi along with thousands of other Brotherhood leaders and activists, shut down media outlets sympathetic to the Islamists, and banned the movement from Egyptian political life entirely.
Then, in August 2013, the army and security forces opened fire on thousands of Morsi’s supporters who were engaged in a peaceful sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square, killing at least 1,000 people. In a report one year later, Human Rights Watch called the massacre “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
In the decades leading up to the Arab uprisings of 2011, Islamist parties across the region renounced violence and committed to participating in electoral politics. But now, Islamists view the Egyptian military’s coup and subsequent crackdown as a signal that election results will not be respected. The process can spiral out of control, as it did in Algeria in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of winning parliamentary elections, and the military intervened to cancel the second round of voting. That coup set off an eight-year war civil war that killed more than 100,000 people.
Many in the Arab world and the West have failed to grasp this danger: While authoritarian rule appears to provide stability over the short term, it breeds discontent and affirms the idea that violence is the only way to be heard. It also sets up a dichotomy favored by Sisi, Assad and the strongmen of an earlier generation, where Arabs are stuck between only two choices: authoritarian and nominally secular rule, or life under Islamist extremists like al-Qaida or the Islamic State.
Rulers who demonize all Islamists and other opponents as terrorists who must be suppressed nurture a self-fulfilling prophecy, allowing them to repeat the pattern of repression that leads to more radicalization. For the strongman to keep power, there can be no other choice.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. A former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He tweets @BazziNY