Middle East & North Africa

Revanchist Regimes of the New Middle East: Authoritarians on the Offensive

The modern Middle East has been wracked by chaos and instability. The hopes and aspirations of the Arab Spring and, in Turkey’s case, the liberalizing of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, have given way to fear and discomfort. The shift in attitudes in the greater Middle East, from spirited renaissance to resignation, has given way to a new form of authoritarianism. No longer do boring-but-stable dictators, in the vein of Mubarak and Ben Ali exist. Ruling today’s Middle Eastern countries requires an active proselytization of the government line, and vicious war on any opposition, both internally and internationally. These are the new revanchist regimes of the Middle East.

Image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov, © 2016.

The Arab Spring brought a revolutionary spirit to the Middle East. However, the positivity of this spirit was short-lived. Egypt saw its revolution seemingly hijacked by the illiberal politics of the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria and Yemen collapsed on sectarian, tribal, and economic lines. Libya fractured on local tribal and regional rivalries. Tunisia subsisted, albeit with little actual change. Radical groups, such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and others, flourished in the post-revolutionary vacuums. Economies cratered and livelihoods, such as the tourism industry in Egypt, evaporated from instability. Violence left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced millions, and redrew ethnic and sectarian borders. The upheaval resulting from the Arab Spring made lasting changes to the region, the consequences of which will persist for years to come.

This environment led many across the region to yearn for stability and a return to normalcy. Yet, they were also imbued with that spirit of revolution that has not wholly subsided. The old dictatorial system of quiet normalcy in the face of the state apparatus is not sufficient to temper residual populist energies, nor is it seen as sufficient to prevent another uprising by the state apparatuses and strongman leaders themselves. Their answer has been to evolve into an offensive, populist authoritarian system aiming to unify a critical mass of the population under the regime and to marginalize and stifle potential destabilizing unrest.

The new Middle East regime bears many characteristics of previous regimes. Their tactics are, on principle, not new, but have been adapted to the twenty first century and the Information Age. As Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser rallied Egyptians under the flag of nationalism and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk marshalled Turks under a radical reimagining of Turkey as a secular and modern state, so too have today’s Middle East regimes played to nationalist ideals. The power of the state over media has shaped and spread this new nationalist wave in a way that it adheres to the security of the existing elites, while giving the people an outlet for their enthusiasm.

Influence and propaganda campaigns have aggressively targeted local populations to foster unity and loyalty. In Egypt, President Sisi and the various organs of the state and pro-state media have crafted a strong nationalist narrative, relying on long-standing conspiratorial mindsets to strengthen unity. The West, in particular the United States, is blamed as the root-cause for all ills afflicting the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, ousted from power in the 2014, and anyone affiliated with the group have been labeled as terrorist, as are others who challenge the state, from human rights activists to independent media organizations.

Turkey blames the West—both indirectly and directly through pro-regime outlets and official statements—for being behind threats to the country, from terrorist threats emanating from the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to the failed coup d’état in July 2016 to the harboring and support of the Hizmet movement. President Erdogan has also taken to claiming his domestic opponents—from the pro-Kurdish, pro-peace People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to the center-left, secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)—are terrorists as a means to undermine their legitimacy.

Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has full control over the “truth” in areas under its influence, restricting any information beyond what it wants its population to here and brutally silencing those who challenge it. The Assad regime has also worked in concert with both Russian and Western conspiracy theorists and some academics and journalists to create a pro-regime narrative and information environment that targets both Syrians and an international audience. In Libya, eastern General Khalifa Haftar has succeeded in making himself a powerful figure by rallying Libyan militias under Libyan nationalism and demonizing their adversaries, both Islamists and others.

These efforts have capitalized on fears and uncertainties of the populations that have lived through the uprisings and civil wars of the past near-decade, and directed their energies towards supporting the state and demonizing their opponents. They have had a measurable impact. Westerners who visit Egypt outside of tourist purposes are viewed with suspicion, if not overt distrust, while Egyptians and Arabs more generally have increasingly developed a favorable view of Russia, which shares the illiberal values with the Sisi regime and other regional authoritarian states. In Turkey, polls have suggested that a majority of the population believe that the United States was behind the coup attempt, and a majority—albeit slim—of Turkish citizens voted affirmative to devolve further power onto the person of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan in the May 2017 Referendum. Syrians living under the regime and their international supporters believe that their side is fighting foreign-backed terrorists, not a domestic civil war that began against a dictatorial regime. And many Syrian soldiers and regime supporters use phrases such as “Assad or we burn the country” and bear tattooed portraits of their leader on their bodies.

These strategies actively undermine Western interests—security alliances, political ties, local economic opportunities, etcetera. The illiberal ideologies behind these authoritarians are inherently hostile towards Western liberal values. They see democracy, freedom of speech, open society, and diversity of opinion as a threat, and thus seek to undermine these values as a strategic necessity. States ostensibly allied with the West, such as Turkey and Egypt, actively wage propaganda against the United States and Europe in their domestic information environments. These drive the policies further and further out of their alliances with the West and towards friendships with adversaries of the West, such as China and Russia. This has already begun to manifest in the realm of hard power: Turkey has finalized a deal with Russia to purchase the S-400 missile defense system, and has pursued membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while Egypt has discussed military cooperation with Russia and increased weapons procurement from Moscow.

The West must directly confront these disruptive threats to the Western-led international order and long-term regional security. Soft power tangible-initiatives, diplomatic engagement, and public diplomacy are more effective tools in dealing with the modern Middle East regime than any weapon or bomb. The narratives that these states perpetuate must be smartly engaged and contested in a constructive manner. Today’s Middle East regimes have adopted these strategies to survive. They have adapted to today’s Information Age that initially fed the Arab uprisings and turned it into a tool to perpetuate flattery of their own regimes. They have demonized the West as an enemy to combat its soft power influence, which challenges their illiberal, authoritarian message. By cultivating and instigating a populist base on nationalist and loyalist principles, the new Middle East regime, like the old regimes, perpetuates its own existence.

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