On the 17 December 2010, a simple street vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, tired of the ritualistic repression and humiliation of his life under the dictatorship of President Ben Ali set himself on fire. It was an act of political martyrdom that reverberated across the region and catapulted into the wave of revolutions that became known as the ‘Arab Spring’. President Obama hailed it as ‘A historic new chapter, in the Arab world.
Less than a decade later, Donald Trump announced the “dawn” of a very different “new Middle East.” He was referring to the signing of the historic ‘Abraham Accords’ between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This agreement formalised the previously tacit relations between the repressive Gulf monarchies and Israel. No mention was made of democracy in the Arab World. The Palestinians were an afterthought.
From an embrace of reform, at least rhetorically, America had reverted to its old policy of supporting authoritarian stability. The election of Joe Biden did little to alter this trend. Biden visited Saudi Arabia, while saying little about democratic backsliding in Egypt and Sudan.
In an era where much is remarked about the importance of preserving and promoting democracy in Ukraine, the ‘Arab Winter’ and the subsequent return of western support towards authoritarian regimes has scarcely been covered. When it is, it is defended on grounds of expediency which smack of the Orientalism described by Edward Said. Worse, the Arab Spring was not an aberration but the product of long-term, structural flaws of the authoritarian model of state in the Arab world. Without addressing those flaws, Western policy is merely applying a Band-Aid while ensuring a future explosion.
While the revolts that made up the Arab Spring can be blamed on specific local circumstances, the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the mismanagement of succession processes in Egypt and Libya, crop failures in Syria, these acted not as fuel but as sparks which set off a powder keg. Public anger at widespread human rights violations, political corruption and the ‘freedom deficit’ in the Arab world constituted the organizing principles behind many of the demonstrations. Most importantly, these deficits were not the product of incompetence of specific dictators or regimes but inherent to the authoritarian model of governance.
Human rights abuses and corruption were a result of the authoritarian systems of these governments and a natural by-product of dictatorial rule. In order to consolidate and maintain power in countries, dictators must crush opposition parties that threaten their power. In ‘crushing’ these opposition parties, tactics like torture, intimidation and arbitrary detention are regularly used as they are the most effective and efficient way of reducing the threat these parties pose to the regime. Much of western policymaking obsesses over the ‘stability’ of regimes, which in practice means the longevity of governments. This problem often compounds however as dictators stay on for longer periods. As they get older, much of their money and status is tied to their position as leader of the country and so they have a progressively higher stake and interest in preserving the regime. Just like the old adage that power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely, the longer a large concentration of power remains in their hands the larger their ego becomes and the more that they believe only they uniquely deserve to run the country. This typically means that they resort to harsher tactics of repression when faced with protests from the public. Human rights violations are therefore not just by-products of authoritarian rule but vital components in their system.
Corruption is also endemic within authoritarian systems of government. Authoritarian systems lack a free press, economic competition and checks and balances which often means that the punishment for corruption is minimal. This incentivizes bureaucratic corruption, which has shown to increase social inequality, exacerbate poverty and slow down economic development. Given that legitimacy is not derived from the people, dictators maintain power by keeping important institutions and interests such as the military or business elites on their side. They gift these individuals with large sums of money and allow corrupt business dealings to occur in exchange for loyalty towards the regime.
The cumulative issue is that without true reform, i.e. the implementation of democracy, the long-term structural factors that caused the uprisings will continue to exist. Egypt’s new authoritarian leader, Al Sisi, for example has been accused by human rights watch of numerous cases of torture, arbitrary detentions and summary executions. This led to protests against his regime in 2019, which were brutally supressed. The chaos and instability of the Arab spring has led international leaders to conclude that dealing with autocrats like MBS or Al-Sisi is far easier and more in line with their national interests then supporting democratic change. Western leaders think that it is more advantageous for their nations if they deal with leaders who have been in power for a long time and are thus more predictable. Democracy on the other hand is messy, complex and may produce leaders that don’t necessarily align with the West. The issue with that thinking is that is short-term, these rulers may be able to hold onto power for a while through repression but issues like corruption and human rights abuses will continue to exist because they are a result of authoritarian rule. If these structural factors continue to exist, we may see an even larger regional uprising in the future.
Why, then, have Western policymakers chosen to ignore these flaws and justify their support of authoritarian regimes on the basis of the same stability they cannot deliver? Not all of it can be attributed to pure national interest, many western observers are aware of the analysis above and speak often about the flaws of authoritarianism. A large component of hesitant western embrace of autocrats therefore can be explained through the phenomena of ‘orientalism’ and the orientalist narratives that continue to pervade throughout western society.
Orientalism was a term coined by the late Edward Said in his ground-breaking book ‘Orientalism’ written in 1978. It is a term which describes the presumption of western superiority which dominates discourse surrounding the Eastern world. It comes from fictional and mystical descriptions of the ‘Orient’ and oriental peoples which leads to a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic people and their culture.'” The ‘Orient’ and its culture is described as primitive, violent, irrational and fanatic and inherently inferior to ‘enlightened’ Western culture which is progressive and rational. This provided much of the ideological justification for European colonialism in the 18th and 19th century, where the European powers claimed they were on a ‘civilizing mission‘ to bring enlightenment rationality and liberty to the Orient. Colonization would help people become rational, modern and developed and get rid of the chaos, barbarity and insanity that supposedly plagued eastern society.
A similar mentality continues to pervade in western society today. When the Arab spring broke out, despite initial enthusiasm by western leaders, neo-orientalist narratives quickly took hold. Although on a mass scale never seen before, the Arab spring protests were described as ‘unprecedented,’ in a region that never had a taste of western-style liberal democracy. This narrative of course ignored the 100-year long history of Arab revolutions in favour of democracy and self- determination, from the Persian constitutional revolution in 1905 to the first intifada in Palestine. The narrative also ignored the very active role played by the West in crushing attempts at political reform in the middle east in order to safeguard their national and economic interests. The 1953 coup d’état in Iran for example, saw the US and the UK overthrow the democratically elected prime minister of Iran Mohammed Mosaddegh because he decided to nationalise the oil reserves in his own country.
The western disillusionment with the Arab Spring is caused by an orientalist framework which perceives western-style liberal democracy to be the highest form of enlightenment and governance. Orientalist thought frames the west as superior, and its cultures and political norms thus as the ultimate goal for all. Within a few months of the uprisings, western think tanks and intellectuals immediately began scaremongering over the possibility of an ‘Islamist winter.’ A 2011 report from the Brookings Institute, asked a simple question, “the uprisings were supposed to lead to democracy, what happened?’ The article claimed that the uprisings had been hijacked by Islamist parties who could not be trusted with power. Enhanada in Tunisia for example, despite widely being recognized as a moderate Islamist party with legitimate democratic credentials, was labelled as a party that could not be trusted in power. The implicit assumption within the article was that only uprisings which produced western style liberal democracies were legitimate, and that Islamic parties, however moderate, could not be trusted with western concepts like democracy. Unsurprisingly, the image accompanying the article was not one of protesters or any of the major political actors, but one of Muslims in prayer. The issue with the uprisings thus was not Islamism as an ideology, but Islam itself. The Arabs simply have the ‘wrong’ religion and the ‘wrong'” culture for democracy. In a framework which measures political progress by how western the society is as opposed to how democratic or free, secular dictators are seen as more progressive than non-conforming Islamists. In an article by Michael Totten, an American journalist, he referred to Tunisia as the most ‘pro-democratic’ of the revolutionary Arab states of 2011, not because of its political structures or free press but because “most Tunisian women in the cities eschew the headscarf and dress like Europeans.” The western embrace of MBS can be seen in a similar light. His rise to power has seen an increased crackdown on activists and journalists, including women protesting for the right to drive. At the same time, he opened Saudi Arabia up to western sporting events and allowed cinemas and various entertainment venues to operate which lead Mike Pompeo (secretary of state under Trump) to declare him as a truly historic figure on the world stage. MBS’s moniker as a ‘reformer’ is attributed to him due to his mild embrace of western culture, as opposed to genuine political reform.
The subsequent instability that engulfed countries like Egypt, Syria, Libya and the broader Middle East was seen as proof that Arabs were fundamentally unable to produce functioning democracies. What is often missed from this narrative is that the French Revolution, hailed in European historiography as the pinnacle of the enlightenment and western democracy, was itself beset by years of instability, protests and mass violence.
Ultimately orientalist attitudes towards Arab culture drew western fears of a potential ‘Islamist takeover’ of the region and led to support for autocrats like Al Sis who could curb these groups. Even though in times of revolution and upheaval it is normal for opposition groups suppressed by authoritarian regimes to take over, fears over the “true intent’ of these parties caused by their non-conformity to western culture led to a greater unease regarding the protests. The subsequent instability of post-revolution regimes served as a convenient narrative that justified the need for pro-western autocrats like MBS.
The current era we are living in can aptly be described as an ‘Arab Winter.’ In Egypt and to an extent in Tunisia we have seen a reversion to the previous authoritarian structures that existed. Libya and Yemen have turned into failed states. An uprising in Bahrain were brutally crushed by the Saudi government (and covertly supported by the West). In Syria, the brutal Assad regime has increased its share of territory and appears to be on the brink of a successful rapprochement with Turkey and the Arab League. The West, whilst once committed to providing the resources needed for true long-term change in the Arab world, has fallen for orientalist narratives that depict Arabs as unable, and perhaps more perniciously as unwilling, to embrace democratic values. The West has even found itself in agreement with Vladimir Putin, who long argued that the Arab spring protests simply brought instability and chaos to the region.
The true tragedy of the Arab world is that whilst the bravery of a simple street vendor in Tunisia demanding a life free from oppression once defined the future of the Arab world, its future now appears to be defined by MBS and the autocratic alliance between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and an increasingly authoritarian right-wing Israeli government.
Worst of all, as is evident in the chaos engulfing Israel, repression is no guarantee of stability. Without fixing the underlying problems which Mohamed Bouazizi and others gave their lives to protest, the West will come to learn the hard way that those who sacrifice justice for stability will end up with neither.
Written by Dev KarpeShare this: