Autocrats have often used the facade of democracy to give their hold on power a veneer of legitimacy.
The sudden death of Egypt’s only elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, in court has been widely recognised as a cruelly ironic symbol of Egypt’s trajectory in the 2010s.
Few could have predicted during the 2011 ouster of Morsi’s predecessor, longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, or after Morsi’s election a year later that within a few years it would be the ousted dictator at liberty and his elected successor serving what amounted to a life sentence.
.While the mouthpieces of the various foreign governments and vested interests who supported the 2013 coup against Morsi need be dignified with no comment, those who have rightly spoken in Morsi’s favour have also tended to miss the point.
Both Egypt, and the various revolts in the Arab sphere, have been portrayed by this latter group, apparently with the best intentions, as an elemental struggle between dictatorship and democracy.
This is an attractive hypothesis – it is true that various bankrollers of the 2013 coup, particularly certain Gulf monarchies, were obsessively paranoid with maintaining their autocratic power, and more broadly it is true that the coercive dictator versus civilian democrat dichotomy carries an appealing moralism in which the blatant injustice of the counterrevolution neatly fits.
However, such a simplistic analysis is not only flawed but liable to abuse, simply because autocratic forces have learned a trick or two about “controlling” democracy with superficial electoral tricks.
Election as selection
To be sure, Morsi was elected. Technically, however, so was his successor Abdel-Fattah Sisi – if only in the most ludicrous parody of elections.
In 2014 Sisi’s opponent, Hamdeen Sabahy, came third in a two-horse race, having been beaten by both the field marshal and by the “invalid vote”, and in 2018 the runner-up, Moussa Mostafa, was only persuaded to defect from his role as an enthusiastic Sisi supporter at the eleventh hour in order to give an effective one-party election the semblance of a legitimate contest.
2018 also saw Sisi arrest a more convincing prospective opponent, Sami Anan; not insignificantly, Anan was a former army commander, sacked by Morsi in the same 2012 shuffle that saw Sisi advance to power.
Anan, the soldier, was more of a threat to the military-dominated regime than Moussa, the civilian; this is a phenomenon that the simplistic analysis of dictatorship versus democracy cannot adequately explain.
Nor is this a one-off. The dictator of the single most destructive regime in the present period, Bashar Assad, who has had to forcibly eject half of Syria’s population in a terrible war to hold onto power, was also technically elected.
The snap election he engineered in 2014 was even more ludicrous because, coming as it did in the middle of a country-wide war, it automatically disenfranchised millions of the electorate, many under ferocious government bombardment even as the votes were cast by a fraction of Syria’s citizens.
Perhaps it was a tacit recognition of the election’s implausibility that Assad’s share of the votes was for once permitted to dip fractionally below ninety percent.
Conceit of democratic rule
The case of Syria’s election is extreme but it is not without precedent. Prior to the 2010s Middle Eastern revolts, there was the neoconservative-generated war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a superficial but not unimportant part of whose central conceit was the enforcement of democratic rule.
Afghanistan has had three general elections since the 2001 invasion: in each the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, plausibly claimed that the result was rigged, and in summer 2014 it took a three-month negotiation by US foreign minister John Kerry to get him to accept second place, a pill he only swallowed when a new position, equivalent to the throne, was invented specifically for him, as the CEO of Afghanistan.
If the position sounds terribly mercenary for what is intended to be a public office, it deserves little better.
Iraq, too, has had several elections since its dictatorship was toppled in 2003. The transitional authority that officially governed in the first year thereafter was both spectacularly unaccountable and opportunistic, but the “elected” officials that replaced it were little better.
The 2005 election, coming as it did after brutal conflict in Sunni Arab parts of the country, involved virtually no Sunni Arab voters in any meaningful number.
Its winner, Ibrahim Jaafari, was soon replaced by American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad – showing where the real power lay – with a handpicked alternative, Nuri Maliki, a man whose disastrous rule saw Iraq spiral into sectarian bloodshed.
Even though Khalilzad’s assumption that Maliki would be somehow resistant towards Iran and Shia majoritarianism was quickly exposed as wishful thinking, Washington nonetheless again stepped in to rescue him from a narrow electoral defeat in 2010.
While one can at least appreciate that Maliki did not bother to whitewash these election results as had so many contemporaries, he stubbornly held onto power and the flimsy compromise that the United States engineered soon crumbled, and was well and truly exposed when Daesh's 2014 conquests prompted another US campaign.
The strongman vs the democrat
Libya provides yet another example of electoralism papering over glaring flaws. Rival elections were held between separate self-styled governments in Tripoli and Tobruq during 2014, each again automatically disenfranchising a major chunk of the Libyan electorate.
Yet another externally managed compromise had to be brokered that steadily crumbled and finally fell apart in spectacular style when the Tobruq faction, led by onetime army general and CIA asset Khalifa Hafter, mounted a major assault on Fayiz Sarraj’s Tripoli-based authority and the western region this last spring.
Hafter's swaggering pretenses to military legitimacy – he calls his indisciplined, ruthless militia coalition a “Libyan National Army” – has shrewdly assessed the market in the other side of the “democracy versus dictatorship” argument: in times of uncertainty and political fragmentation, people gravitate towards what appears to be a unifying institution, such as the army.
Never mind that the self-styled field marshal’s military career was a disaster and his “Army” is no more than another set of militias, its sloganeering was meant to appeal not only to foreign elites who saw him as a Sisi-style strongman, but also to such desperate people to whom high-minded theories about democracy and dictatorship are less immediately relevant than survival.
Perpetuating the “democracy versus dictatorship” dichotomy threatens to automatically exclude the concerns of this latter group, playing into the hands of those who portray autocracy as necessary for stability.
None of this is to deny that foreign powers including the West have frequently backed dictators; nor that dictators are anything but self-serving opportunists who frequently stoke and provoke the instability they claim to fight; nor the fundamental need for basic rights that is frequently ignored in the process.
But the concept and rhetoric of democracy has often and frequently been invoked by autocrats, and frequently abused with gimmicks such as shallow electoralism and astroturf activism.
It should not be forgotten that Morsi’s ouster and Sisi’s takeover was enormously assisted by, and perhaps could not have taken place without, months of sustained propaganda by civilian media and a purportedly democratic “civil society” group, Tamarod, which was a thin cover for support from the Saudi and Emirati regimes.
Qatar did not welcome Sisi, and this among other differences saw its Gulf neighbours turn, first covertly and then overtly, against it: this despite the fact that Qatar is a monarchy, not a democracy.
The dividing line has thus not been between dictators and democrats, but between those factions who can be coopted into following foreign agendas at their compatriots’ expense.
To be sure, this latter group is often synonymous with dictatorship, but as Egypt among other cases shows, more than a few dictators have masqueraded as democrats, and more than a few democrats have willingly played along for ideological or opportunistic reasons.
The ideologically gratifying but empirically flawed meta-narrative of dictators versus democrats misses the point and is open to major exploitation.
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