With the breakout of the Arab Spring more than eight years ago, pro-democracy activists in the Arab world and elsewhere were hopeful that the tide of democratic change might have finally reached its shores. Many who had criticised the likes of American scholar Samuel Huntington, who saw democracy as an alien concept to Middle Eastern culture, felt vindicated.
The euphoria of the Arab Spring did not last long, however. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, civil wars erupted, subduing any hopes for a peaceful democratic transition. In Bahrain, fearing Iranian interference, a Saudi-led military intervention quickly put down popular protests. In Morocco, the February protest movement was smothered by a combination of political manoeuvres by King Mohammed VI and a security crackdown. And in Egypt, the military establishment spearheaded a counter-revolution and eventually staged a coup against the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, which installed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s new military ruler.
These developments have been seen by many as yet another indication that the Arab world is intrinsically undemocratic . The rise of organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has validated the perceived need for a strongman rule. The political choice of Arab nations has been seemingly reduced to “SISI or ISIS”.
With this logic in mind, regional and world powers have sponsored the return of military dictatorships to the region, with the hope that they would clean up the Arab Spring “mess” and restore order. In particular, they are seeking to create a new “military crescent” in North Africa that encompasses Sudan, Egypt, Libya and Algeria.
But just as the military rule established in the 1950s and 1960s eventually crumbled, this new push to militarise Arab politics is also bound to fail.
The US hope for the ‘enlightened’ Arab military ruler
Western powers have long been supporters of military rule in the Arab world, the United States being one of its earliest and most eager proponents.
In the late 1940s, modernisation theories popular within US political circles regarded the conservative ruling elites as a major hurdle towards the establishment of modern states and societies in the Arab world. At the same time, as Washington gradually emerged as a world power, its interests started to clash with those of its ally, the British empire, particularly in the Middle East.
The US viewed Arab conservative regimes as an extension of British – and in some cases French – colonialism, which it sought to dismantle. It considered takeovers led by Arab military forces – which tended to be more modernised than other state institutions in the Arab world – as a viable solution.
By the 1940s there was also already a model for the region to follow: the Young Turks’ revolution and the subsequent rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which rapidly modernised the newly created Turkish republic.
The US political elite was convinced that Ataturk-like military leaders were better equipped to start a modernisation process from the top, change, forcibly if necessary, the conservative culture of Middle Eastern countries, and expel the Europeans from the region.
In 1949, the CIA assisted the military coup in Syria against the first democratically-elected government of Shukri al-Quwatli. In 1952, the US welcomed the coup against the British-backed Egyptian monarchy led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This US strategy faltered a bit after the Suez War of 1956 when the Soviet Union entered the scene in the Middle East and opened another front in the intensifying Cold War, but ultimately, Washington continued to favour military rule in the region over the next few decades.
Arab military rulers did engage in the modernisation of their countries but also created police states and dysfunctional economies in which people had neither bread, nor freedom. Poverty, repression, despair, inequality, and marginalisation led to radicalisation and violence.
It took the US some 60 years to admit the link between authoritarianism and extremism. Four years after the 9/11 attacks, in June 2005, then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, gave a speech in Cairo, in which she said: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East – and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Yet, when the people of the region took to the streets in peaceful protests a few years later, demanding freedom and democracy, Washington did not extend its support. In 2011, the US and European countries once again demonstrated their deep conviction that their interests in the Middle East are served best by autocratic leaders and that they see the democratic aspirations of the Arab people as a threat.
A new military crescent
But they are not alone in this belief. Regional players Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates too felt threatened by the popular uprisings in the Middle East and for many years now, they have been leading the counter-revolutionary forces in the region to re-establish military rule. Ironically, the two GCC states weren’t always supporters of Arab military strongmen.
Saudi Arabia, in particular, was a fierce opponent of military rule in the region, as army officers toppled one conservative monarchy after the other in the 1950s and 1960s.
Witnessing the dismal fate of royal families in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, the House of Saud worried about its own security and took measures not only to weaken and fragment its own armed forces, but also to ally with anti-revolutionary powers in the region (including Iran under Pahlavi rule).
Today, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, like their US and European allies, see their interests better served by military dictatorships in the region. Thus, after funding the military coup in Egypt in 2013, they are now hoping for military rule to extend to Algeria, Sudan and Libya.
In recent months, Algerian and Sudanese people rebelled against their long-term leaders, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir and managed to topple them. But in both countries, the military has sought to take advantage of the situation. In Sudan, military generals stepped in and took control of the country and in Algeria, the military from behind the scenes has been trying hard to engineer a transition that secures its interests.
Meanwhile, in Libya, renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar launched a major military offensive on the capital Tripoli, seeking to unseat the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and derail efforts to spearhead a political transition through general elections.
In all three countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have stood by the military generals seeking state capture, and so have the US and a number of European countries. In the case of Libya, US President Donald Trump expressed direct support for Haftar, while France has been accused of directly supporting his military operation.
There seems to be a concerted effort to establish a crescent of military-ruled countries from Sudan in northeast Africa to Algeria in the northwest through Egypt and Libya to ward off popular upheaval and keep “Islamist” forces in check. It is based on the misguided belief that military strongmen such as el-Sisi in Egypt, Haftar in Libya or even Bashar al-Assad in Syria can provide security and stability in the region.
But the truth is – as all uprisings since 2011 have demonstrated – the stability, which they promise, is a mere illusion. The fact that popular movements calling for democratisation in the Arab world continue to sweep through the region despite the tragic outcomes in countries like Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya, demonstrates that authoritarian rule and brutality are the main sources of instability and insecurity. They have led to the rise of a new wave of extremist groups, more violent and more radical than before.
The Middle East will not achieve stability until this vicious circle of despotism, violence and extremism is broken. Establishing a military crescent in North Africa is not the right solution for the region.
Change can be delayed but cannot be stopped. In Algeria and Sudan, the military establishment has the unique opportunity to learn from past mistakes, resist foreign influence and make the right choice: hand over power to the civilian population and prevent another Syria from happening.