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The Ultimate Divide: Arabs' Love/Hate Relationship with Authoritarianism

posted on: Oct 23, 2020

The Ultimate Divide: Arabs Love/Hate Relationship with Authoritarianism

By: Noureldin Mohamed/Arab America Contributing Writer Authoritarian regimes have had a long historical impact on the Arab world. Years of struggle under harsh dictatorships came to a head with the 2011 Arab Spring, the consequence of widespread disapproval. But were these uprisings successful? In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria, days of protests ousted the long sitting regimes. Although the 30-year-old regimes were ousted, only a few countries managed to successfully establish a democracy in their place.

Here is a quick educational video on Authoritarianism:

But another question comes up, do Arabs really want democracy? There is no doubt that freedom of speech, press, and basic human rights are desired, but to this day, some of the pre-2011 dictators are appreciated by Arabs. The West saw democracy essential for the Middle East and the Arab World. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak supporters find themselves to be tied to the 30-year reigning ex-president. Today, the army not only holds political power, which it has done since the 1952 coup, it also heads a vast economic and media empire that controls the state and has a monopoly in every walk of life. The Arab state leaders were strategically positioned to maintain calm and steady diplomatic matters.

Before and After 2011

The Ultimate Divide: Arabs Love/Hate Relationship with Authoritarianism
Check out Joseph Sassoon’s Book ‘Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics’.

According to CNN, in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was the bulwark of peace with Israel. In Libya, a reformed Moammar Gadhafi was courted for potential investment and trade agreements. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad was a predictable leader who maintained the Golan Heights as a conflict-free zone. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh was regarded as an ally against al Qaeda. Tunisia has by far been the most successful in establishing a democratic regime with citizen overview. Although, it does lack small details, such as a well-organized parliament and economic stability.

But, according to US ambassador to Tunisia from 2012 to 2015, Jake Walles, said it was the country’s openness to the outside world and tradition of moderation that set Tunisia apart, enabling factions to resolve differences, adopt a constitution, and hold free elections in 2014. It isn’t perfect, but it remains a beacon for the rest of the region, proof that an Arab democracy isn’t a contradiction of terms.

Dictatorships kept the status quo manageable. Authoritarian government suppression of activism, alternative voices of civil society, and independent media meant that top-down decisions were rarely contested. This pretty much guaranteed that Western interests would be served without many complications. In return, Arab dictators enjoyed Western financial and military aid and political reassurances.

Yemen was the epitome of this dynamic. Saleh courted and was courted by American diplomats who turned a blind eye to his transgressions, from arms smuggling to forcing new businesses to include him as a “partner” so that he could ensure a cut in the profits, while most Yemenis lived below the poverty line. Yemeni authority pre-2015 summarizes all the ills of dictatorships and their management by foreign patrons. In Egypt today, a military government has found to be somewhat viable as a transitional government, however, it needs some civilian presence.


Sudan’s 2020 protests saw violence and massacres as citizens defied authoritarianism calling for a free democratic election.

Today, eight years after the first Arab Spring protests, Algeria and Sudan may refer to this period to avoid past mistakes. Protesters in both countries accept that an interim military government is necessary to restore order. Yet, they insist that these governing bodies must also comprise civilian delegates. Everything depends on military rulers’ sense of responsibility.

While iron-fisted rule has resulted in a form of stability for Egypt, oppression is not a viable long-term solution. Some may think the time of uncompromising military dictatorships is over, but the model remains as the governing body. International organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do not side with military authority. Journalistic freedom is restricted and political prisoners remain captive. Furthermore, this constant is not only in Egypt, but remains a characteristic of Arab authority.

How Far Does this Civilian/Authority Relationship Go?

Interview with author Joseph Sassoon on Authoritarianism in the Arab World

These authoritarian regimes fail to stop the spread of corruption, nepotism and abuse of public office. There is a near-complete absence of transparency and accountability – principles that ought to govern the performance of both public and private institutions. The Arab world has faced autocratic regimes that lack legitimacy in any true developmental sense, and bear no resemblance to what might be considered good governance. Instead, narrow elites control the state, society, and citizens with an iron fist. No real competition is allowed in the political arena, and the rights of citizens are restricted in terms of freedom of expression, freedom to organize and freedom to participate in public life.

Despite this, rulers face no significant challenge from society, and the cost of controlling the masses is minimal. The paradox, therefore, lies between social and economic incompetence and the illegitimacy of Arab regimes—the easy, low-cost means by which they survive. 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 Qaeda or ISIS.

According to a study by The Atlantic Council Hariri Center’s Richard LeBaron, the first observation we would draw from the data is that Arabs have decidedly not rejected democracy as a form of government suitable for them. Second, MENA countries need to respond to the unfulfilled economic aspirations of their people, which is consistently the top priority across the Arab world. Third, we should not confuse the prioritization of material well-being with disinterest in progress towards democracy. Arabs surveyed expect more from their governments, as indicated by the constant interest in political and government reform, and by the abiding belief in the idea of democracy as the best overall political system.

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