by Derek Davison
Over the next few months, citizens in several Middle Eastern countries will take to the polls in a series of elections that will have a good deal to say about the direction the region’s politics will take. From Turkey, to Syria, to Iraq, to Egypt, there is a danger that these elections will ratify a resurgent authoritarian tendency that has developed, in part, as a reaction to the so-called “Arab Spring” movement.
The most obvious example of this phenomenon is in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarianism has remained constant despite the ongoing civil war it has sparked. Assad recently declared his intention to stand for reelection in June. In an interesting but certainly symbolic gesture, this year’s vote will be contested, as opposed to previous presidential elections in 2000 and 2007 that were conducted as referenda in which Assad’s name was the only one on the ballot. There is little reason to believe that this election will be any more legitimate than those were, and in many ways it will be much worse. The vote will only be permitted in areas of the country that are under government control, and there is no indication that the millions of Syrians who have been displaced by the war will be able to cast ballots. UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has argued that elections will only further hamper efforts to reach a negotiated settlement in the three-year old conflict, though progress toward such a settlement has been imperceptible.
Turks have already voted once this year in municipal elections, where Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party won a clear, albeit not overwhelming victory. Erdogan is expected to run in August’s presidential election, where he is the presumptive favorite. Since ordering a violent crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters (whose protest movement is still active) last summer, Erdogan has been governing with an increasingly authoritarian bent by limiting press freedoms, increasing his direct control over Turkey’s judiciary, quashing a corruption probe that targeted his aides, and even banning social media inside Turkey. Although Turkey’s constitution establishes a parliamentary system with limited presidential authority and Erdogan tried and failed to change the constitution to increase that authority in 2012, he has pledged to use “all [his] constitutional powers” if he becomes president, which suggests he will assert the authority of the presidency as far as he can within constitutional bounds.
For Americans, the resurgence of authoritarianism in Iraq may be the most difficult pill to swallow, given the blood and treasure the United States expended, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives it took, in a war that resulted in the only tangible result (since pre-war threats of Iraqi nuclear weapons turned out to be completely empty) of the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But since he was elected Prime Minister in 2006, Nuri al-Maliki has increasingly consolidated his authority over the Iraqi state, particularly by oppressing Iraq’s Sunni population, whose recent uprising has given Maliki an excuse to accelerate his accumulation of power. Maliki has governed in fear of a Baathist revival among the Sunnis, and has manipulated the state security apparatus to consolidate his hold on power even as the security situation in Iraq has collapsed, and while Iraqi infrastructure continues to crumble, Maliki’s attention seems to be focused solely on retaining power. The results of Iraq’s April 30 parliamentary elections are not yet known, and there is a chance that Maliki will have to make some concessions in order to form a coalition government, but the likeliest outcome is that Maliki’s State of Law Coalition will come away victorious and he will retain the premiership with a free hand.
In Egypt, the resurgence of authoritarianism hasn’t waited for Field Marshal-turned-civilian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s likely election in May. It began, arguably, with the coup that removed former President Mohamed Morsi from power, but certainly revealed itself in August of last year, when Egypt’s interim government launched a violent crackdown against protesters and Muslim Brotherhood figures. That crackdown claimed 638 lives in a single day (August 14, 2013), with almost 4,000 injured, and has led to over 3,000 deaths in total (the majority in clashes between protesters and security forces), with another 17,000 injured and nearly 19,000 Egyptians imprisoned. The government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in December, a move with obvious ramifications in terms of stamping out political opposition and one that experts have warned could become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” by driving Brotherhood members toward terrorism as their only remaining means of opposition. Last month, an Egyptian judge sentenced 529 people, most or all of them Brotherhood supporters, to death over an attack on Egyptian police in August. This month, that same judge commuted all but 37 of the death sentences to 25-year prison terms — and then sentenced an additional 683 men to death. There is a possibility that the upcoming campaign will somehow put Egypt on a path toward democratic reform, but it seems more likely that Sisi’s election will cement Egypt’s complete return to authoritarian repression.
Each of these cases illustrates the limits and challenges facing US foreign policy in the region. The US’ unwillingness to take a strong stance on Egyptian repression was made clear when it refused to admit that the coup which removed Morsi from power was, in fact, a coup, because doing so would have triggered automatic cuts in US aid. Now, while it condemns the death sentences handed to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters as “unconscionable,” America continues to send military aid to Egypt (though not without Congressional opposition) because its security priorities (fighting Sinai terrorism, maintaining close Egypt-Israel ties, and ensuring that the Suez Canal remains open) require it. Turkey is a NATO ally whose collaboration is important to American policy on Syria, Iran, and even Russia, so there is little that Americas can do to rein in Erdogan even as the White House criticizes his more repressive policies. It’s been apparent for some time now that the US has little leverage with which to hasten Assad’s ouster, and given the makeup of the Syrian opposition, it’s not clear that a post-Assad Syria would actually be preferable from an American viewpoint, though millions of Syrians would disagree. Finally, as far as Maliki is concerned, it seems that Washington is content to remain relatively quiet as Maliki consolidates his power, as long as he keeps up the fight against jihadist forces like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which have used the discord among Iraqi Sunnis to expand their regional influence.