Authoritarianism on the rebound, my latest at Lobe Log

My newest piece at Lobe Log looks at the many elections that are scheduled to take place (some of which have already taken place) in the Middle East (specifically Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt) this year, and the concern that they will help entrench a reviving strain of authoritarianism that is taking hold in the region (as well as what it all says about American policy in the region):

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.

I left out the presidential election in Afghanistan, partly since it’s outside the eastern Mediterranean/Levant region but also because Afghanistan is actually in a place where it could use a little more central authority. The insurgency is still too powerful, whoever is running the country is still too dependent on corrupt tribal leaders and local warlords to get anything done (corruption is endemic at this point), and the army is still a shambles. That’s not to say that I think Karzai wouldn’t prefer to govern as a dictator, or that the two guys who made it to the runoff to succeed him (former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, although it doesn’t seem like Karzai is planning on going anywhere, really) wouldn’t prefer it as well, but they really can’t.

I also left out Lebanon, which is in the process of electing a new president (though that’s done by parliamentary vote, not popular vote), theoretically, and will hold parliamentary elections this fall. Why? Because Lebanon is a mess. Parliament has now tried and failed twice to elect a president, and there are fears of a real political catastrophe if something doesn’t happen to break the logjam soon.

Lebanese Political Inaction Figures, courtesy the very funny Karl reMarks

There’s also Algeria, where dictator President for Life Abdelaziz Bouteflika was just re-“elected” to a fourth term, though at age 77 it’s probably unlikely that he’ll live to see the end of it, and it will be interesting to see what happens then. Libya, too, is holding elections, one in February for a constitutional assembly and another scheduled for June to elect a new assembly to replace the mostly ineffective and unloved General National Congress. But Libya has been effectively in anarchy since Gaddafi was toppled and killed, so while there’s a hope that a new constitution and new assembly might help patch the country together, I wouldn’t put great odds on the possibility.

Tunisia is also scheduled to have a general election sometime this year, and here is actually some good news. After dictator President for Life a Long Time Zine El Abedine Ben Ali was overthrown during the Arab Spring back in 2011, a new Constituent Assembly was elected that was headed by the “Troika,” a coalition of three parties that cobbled together a majority, led by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda, which had won a plurality in the election. You probably can guess what happens next if you don’t already know: the Troika, which had promised to serve as a caretaker government for one year before calling new elections, scrapped that plan, and Ennahda, like its cousin in Egypt, started to look to a lot of people like it was governing undemocratically and pushing through laws that would enable it to remain in power indefinitely. But in Tunisia’s case, there was no coup to remove the Brotherhood from power; Ennahda instead agreed to step aside and hand power over to a true caretaker government in advance of new elections. The Assembly just passed a new election law that contains some impressive bits, like allowing figures from Ben Ali’s regime to run for office (good for national reconciliation) and requiring that women make up half of the parties’ candidate lists (just good, period). So Tunisia might actually be on a good path for the moment.

All in all it’s quite a year for election-watching in the Middle East. Plus India, of course, whose next Prime Minister is probably going to be Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who presided over, and probably helped cause, a massacre of 2000 Muslims back in 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat. I’m sure he’ll handle relations with Pakistan very well.


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