What does 2022 hold for democracy in the Middle East?

Sudan protests
6 min read
05 January, 2022

With authoritarianism on the rise in the Arab world, gloomy outlooks have replaced the widespread optimism about democratisation in the region that many were expressing 11 years ago at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

In Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, among others, hope for democratic change is hard to come by. Unfortunately, looking ahead, the prospects for democratisation in MENA states are dim and there is a fair share of blame that belongs on the doorstep of Western governments with respect to the Arab world’s democratic deficits.  

Events of last year were particularly detrimental to the health of democracy in the MENA region. Tunisian President Kais Saied’s Napoleonic power grab on 25 July was a subversion of democracy in the country widely hailed as the “birthplace of the Arab Spring” and the Arab region’s “sole democratic success story”. Then exactly three months later came Sudan’s military coup, another major blow to democracy in the Arab world.

"You can't have political stability if people don't feel that there's justice. Democratic change is part of that"

“It was hoped that because of [the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 and the Iranian Green Movement in 2009], the ground had shifted in the direction of democracy but for various political, not religious, reasons, this did not happen,” said Dr Nader Hashemi, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, in an interview with The New Arab.

Dictators and despots all over the Arab world have benefited from the myth of authoritarian stability, which many in the West fully embrace. After the Arab Spring revolts, widespread violence unleashed across the MENA region led many cynics in the West to conclude that Arabs shouldn’t be entitled to democracy.

The argument has been that introducing freedoms to Arab societies is a recipe for chaos and extremism, thus having pro-Western authoritarians in power best suits the interests of the US and Europe.

But this short-term thinking is misguided. Authoritarianism will not lead to lasting stability. “Real stability comes from within,” as Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, recently stated. “You can’t have political stability if people don’t feel that there’s justice. Democratic change is part of that.”

Yet, unfortunately, many in Arab officialdom did not take that away as a key lesson from 2011. Instead, many regimes in the MENA region concluded that the messiness which followed the Arab Spring stemmed from their perceived failure to be sufficiently authoritarian.

With strong support from some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states - chiefly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the patron of the counterrevolution - the leaderships in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, and other Arab states have been emboldened in their crackdowns on civil society and pro-democracy movements.

Live Story

 The West's complicity

“Authoritarian regimes have successfully crushed all dissent and killed any meaningful prospects for democracy,” Dr Hashemi told TNA.

“Not only have these regimes not paid a price for their ruthless suppression of civil society but many of them have been rewarded by Western democratic governments. Last year, for example, Emmanuel Macron hosted Egypt’s fascist dictator in Paris and gave him the ‘Legion of Honor’ award for great leadership and statesmanship. A month earlier, Germany did something similar.”

When Joe Biden was a presidential candidate in 2019/2020, he often promised to restore so-called American values to Washington’s foreign policy. While on the campaign trail, Biden vowed to hold the Saudi leadership accountable for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi while making human rights more of a priority on the international stage.

At last month’s virtual Summit for Democracy, the US leadership vowed to confront authoritarianism worldwide and make the world safer for democracy.

Demonstrators gather at Avenue Habib Bourguiba to protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's "extraordinary decisions" amid a heavy security presence in Tunis, Tunisia on October 10, 2021
Western governments will likely turn a blind eye to much of the reversions to authoritarianism in Tunisia, Sudan, and other Arab countries in 2022. [Getty]

In practice, however, Biden’s administration is quite like Donald Trump’s in terms of being indifferent to democratisation in the Arab world. Differences between the two US presidents have been “mostly rhetorical, not substantive,” explained Dr Hashemi.

“Biden and [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken pepper their speech with references to human rights, but in reality, US policy remains unchanged. This applies to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Syria, the ongoing devastating war in Yemen and especially with respect to US support for regional dictators and despotic regimes.”

Just as the Obama administration never determined that Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi’s ouster in 2013 resulted from a “coup”, the current leadership in Washington has refused to designate either last year’s autogolpe in Tunisia or General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s takeover of the Sudanese state as a “coup”. The Biden administration’s responses to both have been mild and cautious.

At the end of the day, the White House wants to keep its options open. This could not happen if the word “coup” is used by US officialdom because of Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act. This requires Washington to cut off aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

"Not only have these regimes not paid a price for their ruthless suppression of civil society but many of them have been rewarded by Western democratic governments"

Looking ahead, just as the US and European countries have worked closely with Sisi’s government in Egypt, it is easy to imagine Western capitals paying merely lip service to Tunisia and Sudan’s democratic institutions and processes while accommodating the return of autocracy to Tunis and militaristic authoritarianism to Khartoum.

While stressing the need to prioritise stability and security, Western governments will likely turn a blind eye to much of the reversions to authoritarianism in Tunisia, Sudan, and other Arab countries in 2022.

Also, in Washington, there will be more of a willingness to accommodate greater autocracy in countries that have official diplomatic ties with Israel or at least are non-confrontational toward Tel Aviv.

This is not new. For example, in 2011 Biden refused to label Hosni Mubarak a dictator because, as the then-vice president said, Egypt was at peace with Israel. Assuming Sudan’s military keeps Khartoum in the Abraham Accords, it is doubtful that Washington would do much in terms of putting real pressure on the junta regime.  

But while the Arab region is becoming increasingly authoritarian and democratic gains from 11 years ago are undergoing major setbacks and reversals, many of the major problems in MENA countries are not improving.

Live Story

Unfortunately, these serious issues themselves decrease the likelihood of any return to growing political freedoms, pluralism, and inclusivity in the region, at least in the foreseeable future.

“Critically, the masses of people in the Arab world continue to suffer from dire economic and social conditions that are not conducive to democratisation,” Dr Hashemi told TNA.

“The pandemic has helped authoritarian regimes reassert control over society and environmental conditions have increased the level of suffering, despair, and mass pauperisation. For many people in the region, the focus is on survival, not democratisation.”

Despite the fact that “authoritarianism is becoming the name of the game” in the Arab world, there is still a quest for democracy in the region. Citizens of MENA countries are willing to die for democratisation, exemplified by recent events in Sudan.

Until citizens of the region stop seeking democratic reforms, the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes will continue to be fearful of their own populations, mindful of the potential of certain groups and individuals in these societies to mobilise in favour of democracy.  

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero