Arab and Middle Eastern dictatorships are infamous for their cruelty, repression and violence. But these aren’t the only things responsible for the longevity of tyrants like the Assad’s of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Such regimes have at times attempted to placate the masses by giving them a stake in the authoritarian order–hat is called the “authoritarian bargain”–where the people forgo freedom in return for decent livelihoods and economic prosperity.
The 2011 uprisings in the Arab world were, in essence, partially the result of the collapse or failure of these set-ups. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has presided over a country whose system had initially been designed by his father in the 1970s to accommodate the needs of around 8 million Syrians. Today there are 23 million Syrians. Many of them were very young and had few prospects when the uprising in 2011 started. Years of corruption have also taken their toll on Syria. That coupled with Assad’s refusal to open up the system or introduce the most basic of reform augmented the severity of the ongoing crisis.
In 2011 the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia most conspicuously, were able to buy-off their populations by investing billions into their public sectors and giving their people other benefits effectively to nipping their aspirations for more openness, reform and political freedoms, in the bud. However unlike Syria they have the billions, for now, needed to do this–but such a model is unsustainable in the long-term.
The age-old dictatorships which were challenged by their discontented masses in 2011 have been fundamentally changed as a result, and in many cases these changes aren’t very pleasant. The so-called Arab Spring started in Tunisia, which is arguably the one country that has got itself a decent semblance of democracy and more representation in government since that time. Syria has collapsed into a bloody war in which there is no end in sight. Libya’s Gaddafi was killed by a ragtag rebel opposition who were given close NATO air support and the country has since collapsed into anarchy and violence. Egypt, in which I will now focus, succeeded in bringing to power its first ever democratically-elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. He quite likely had authoritarian ambitions but was ousted by an army chief, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who went on to become another autocrat in a long-line of autocrats in Egypt.
The Egyptian people have seen their fair share of strife, chaos and hardship in the last two years since Sisi ousted Morsi. The threat posed by Islamist terrorists has increased tenfold since that time. The young idealist members of the Brotherhood find themselves being bitterly repressed by the authorities and are showing alarming signs of being radicalized by the worst kind of extremists who they hitherto wouldn’t have had any truck with, since they now perceive violence to be the only way to avenge themselves on the new regime.
Sisi’s crackdown has been very broad. It isn’t only confined to one particular group. Any dissent is met with arbitrary arrests without fair trials. It is clear he will not tolerate any dissent (even books are being banned in Sisi’s Egypt) or challenge to his rule. In essence he has restored by brute force, coercion and repression the very authoritarian rule the Egyptian people had sought to put an end to in January 2011. A depressingly salient reality.
But even Sisi knows that you cannot effectively retain a status quo whereby he and his cronies get to stay in power by brute force alone. Consequently he has gotten billions in loans and investments from the Gulf states who see his regime as an effective bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood–a party they dearly fear the influence of.
So we see out of the smouldering ruins fraught by the chaos and disorder of the post-2011 order the gradual rise of a regime which is attempting to establish a new authoritarian bargain to try and guarantee its survival and longevity. The masses will be granted a considerable stake in this new order while those who wish to change the system, or at least reform it, will be forced into the already crowded prisons which are populated by the most fanatical of Islamists on the one side and the most moderate and peaceful of secular-minded democrats on the other.
Sisi is seeking investment from Europe and is also trying to kickstart Egypt’s flailing tourist economy, which has been hit with many terrorist attacks by Islamists who have openly said they wish to hurt Egypt’s economy by targeting foreign tourists.
The Egyptian autocrat also has his eye on many projects which are clearly aimed at diverting Egyptians attention from the many ills of their country these days. Projects such as expanding the nations iconic Suez Canal, a symbol of Egyptian nationalism. He has talked about building a million apartments also. Sisi even plans to build a whole new capital city in the desert from scratch which he envisages will be populated by five million of his countrymen. A very ambitious project.
Such investment in the public sector, such advances economically coupled with a promise to crush the threat of Islamist terrorism and violence provided his people forgo what they set out to achieve in January 2011 shows that Sisi is seeking to buy off the masses democratic aspirations in return for fulfilling immediate needs of an economic and social nature. However, as the history of numerous authoritarian orders in the Middle East has aptly demonstrated, when democracy is completely forgone and a small clique attained absolute power vested in their hands the people usually lose these privileges along with their already forgone freedoms. One hopes the Egyptian people are not left in a state of complete destitution, fear and repression in the long-run like many of their Arab brethren have, sadly, been.
Photo by zolakoma, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license