A Cold Authoritarian Wind Sweeps over the Middle East and North Africa
Gianni Del Panta 6 October 2021

The last decade has seen the development of contradictory trends worldwide. On the one hand, reactionary and conservative forces have taken the upper hand, imposing their own political agenda and winning parliamentary seats in many well-established democracies. In a few cases, far-right leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump have taken power and led to a process of deep political polarization and erosion of democratic procedures. In Europe as well, the rise of populist and reactionary forces has produced significant and alarming effects: Hungary and Serbia shall, according to a number of independent institutes, no longer be regarded as full-scale democracies; Poland is dealing with the government’s enduring attempts to limit civil and political rights; and democracy is increasingly contested as a system incapable of delivering social goods and providing answers to citizens’ demands in several states in Western Europe. In many countries of the Global South, moreover, old and new forms of authoritarianism remain the norm, often under the (informal) leadership of the military. To summarize, democratic values and institutions appear under attack almost everywhere, whereas authoritarianism is making a vigorous come back.

On the other hand, the last decade – from 2010 to 2019 – saw the largest wave of mass movements in recorded history, as Erica Chenoweth demonstrated in an article published in Journal of Democracy last year[1]. All over the world, millions of people took to the streets, leading to an impressive number of uprisings that openly contested anti-democratic characteristics. In 2019 alone, for instance, mass protests occurred in Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, and Sudan. Such a wave of mobilizations was temporarily halted by the coronavirus pandemic. By early 2021, however, new outbursts had already affected Belarus, Bolivia, Colombia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Senegal, Thailand, and Tunisia, suggesting that Covid-19 might rapidly transform from acting as a brake into a factor driving revolt, especially in the Global South.


Deceived hope

Despite this strong pressure from below, gains in terms of political rights, civil liberties, and social justice have been modest at best. The region that better illustrates the paradox of impressive mass movements with minimal impact is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). For analytical purposes, two main waves might be identified in the last decade here. The first started in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread like wildfire, reaching several countries in the region, and forcing long-standing autocrats in Tunisia itself, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen out of power. The second wave emerged first in Sudan in December 2018, reaching Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon over the following year. In this case as well, ‘presidents for life’ in Sudan and Algeria and prime ministers in Iraq and Lebanon resigned out of necessity. In both waves, initial hopes for social justice, political freedom, and civil liberties have rapidly faded away. There are several reasons for this. Monarchical regimes in the Gulf as well as in Jordan and Morocco proved robust. Prolonged and bloody civil wars that saw the direct intervention of many regional and international powers developed in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. In some of these territories in which state institutions broke down, armed militias and terrorist groups have proliferated. The rapid rise of the so-called Islamic State over a wide swath of territory in Iraq and Syria has been by far the most spectacular example of this trend. Even in those countries in which the fall of presidents and prime ministers sped up the process of change, the situation has proved more complicated than expected. This is obviously the case in Libya and Yemen, but it holds true elsewhere as well. Italian novelist Tomasi di Lampedusa’s cruel verdict – change everything to change nothing – seems to describe the current situation prevailing in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Morocco, whilst military control of political life is vast in Sudan and overwhelmingly dominant in Egypt. The recent freezing of democracy in Tunisia after President Kaïs Saïed’s decision to suspend the Parliament – initially for a month and then indefinitely – was the last straw in this trend. Ten years after the outbreak of the 2010-11 uprisings, it is arguably hard to find any substantial and progressive transformation. With specific reference to North Africa then, two main trends can be observed: the stubborn persistence of authoritarianism and the defeat of Islamist parties.

On the eve of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010, North Africa was one of the most autocratic regions in the world. Not only were there virtually no democracies, but authoritarian regimes were long-lasting and appeared particularly stable. To be sure, there was no single model of dictatorship in the region: Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia represented instances, although dissimilar, of closed autocracies, whilst Morocco and Algeria were partially liberalized dictatorships. In any case, the crucial element that must be underlined is the fact that authoritarian politics was disrupted at a level that no other region has come close to reach, let alone achieved. Over a decade, the only autocrat who has remained in power has been King of Morocco Muhammad VI. In all North African countries, moreover, an unprecedented process of political liberalization has taken place. This was particularly strong in those countries whose state apparatuses – primarily the ministries of the interior – were severely weakened during the course of the uprisings such as in Egypt and Tunisia, or collapsed entirely as in Libya, but affected also Algeria and Morocco. In contrast to many other Middle Eastern countries in which protests were either too weak to pose a serious threat to the regime or ended in full-scale repression, North African countries were thereby unique in showing a strong process of political liberalization that held the potential for democratization.

Despite that, authoritarianism remains the quintessential feature of politics in the region today: Egypt is a de facto military dictatorship in which the most basic political and civil rights are denied; the Moroccan regime has repeatedly cracked down on social protest movements and the political authority of the king is vast and cannot be questioned; political violence remains dominant in Libya; the Hirak is currently suffering from extreme levels of repression in Algeria and the armed forces are the system’s real kingmakers; and finally procedural democracy has recently collapsed in Tunisia. It is certainly the case that there is no single reason that might provide a convincing answer to the lack of democracy in North Africa. Yet, this is certainly an important question, especially once the vast process of political liberalization that has characterized the region over the last decade is taken into consideration. Over the course of the so-called third wave of democratization (1974–1995) and in its aftermath, Middle Eastern scholars explained, somehow tautologically, the lack of democracy in the region was the product of the strong capacity of authoritarianism to hold on.


Making sense of the democratic failure

This is no longer a viable alternative: authoritarian institutions were deeply shaken by a decade of revolt and mass protests. The focus has to switch therefore to the conditions that prevented the consolidation of the process of political liberalization and what made the initial democratic gains untenable. Three factors seem relevant in this regard. The first is the role of the state. In order to have the emergence and consolidation of democratic institutions, it is essential that state structures perform well, work along the lines of modern bureaucracy that Max Weber identified, and are regarded as the sole legitimate political entity within the territorial boundaries by citizens. Seen in this regard, the very weak and “sultanistic” organization of the state in Libya was not a good starting point for democratization. At the same time, states that tend to be too strong and suffocate society might hamper rather than favour democracy. This is particularly the case when the military tends to be part of the political game, as in Algeria and Egypt. From a state perspective, it was Tunisia and to a lesser extent Morocco that had the greatest potential to democratize. However, Tunisia has suffered from a bureaucracy that has persistently scored at the bottom of rankings on state employees’ efficiency among democratic countries between 2014 and 2020. Tunisian bureaucracy is more efficient than the bureaucracy in Egypt or Algeria, but possibly too weak to support democracy in the medium term.

The second important element is economic development. Although there is no consensus about the social class that has struggled and promoted democracy most consistently – and possibly the same classes have played different roles in different regions and periods – economic development is often positively associated with democratization and democratic stability[2]. Societies that are more developed tend to be more complex and articulated, favouring the emergence of a political system that is based on pluralism and consensus, such as liberal democracy. Once again, Tunisia scored at the top in this regard in North Africa. However, the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis has brutally hit its economy, jeopardizing its two driving forces – that is, tourism and small to medium enterprises that work as subcontractors for European firms in the textile and mechanic sectors – and encouraging anti-democratic solutions both at the elite level and among the lower classes.

Thirdly and finally, the international context must be mentioned. From the 1980s, the European Union and above all the United States started to actively promote the spread of liberal democracy abroad as a powerful institutional instrument to boost their economic and political interests. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and in reaction to a world that has gradually become less unipolar, Western powers have significantly softened their agenda of democratic promotion. As a result, non-democratic regimes that are strongly dependent on the financial and military support of European and North American countries have felt less obligated to partially liberalize their regimes. At the same time, as mentioned above, authoritarianism has made a vigorous come back in the last decade, re-emerging as a viable alternative to democracy. All in all, the international context is less favourable for the emergence and consolidation of new democracies today than a few decades ago.


The rise and fall of political Islam

The second key aspect of today’s North Africa is the setback that Islamist parties have suffered. Due to their vast and rich articulation of affiliated organizations that provide services and organize some sectors of society, Islamists were expected to gain the most from mainly free and fair elections. To a large extent, this expectation was initially vindicated: Ennahda was the most voted party in the 2011 Tunisian election and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) came very close to winning an overall majority of seats in the parliamentary elections in Egypt held between November 2011 and January 2012, moreover, the Salafists did particularly well, winning about one-fourths of the seats. In a similar way, Abdelillah Benkirane became the new Prime Minister in Morocco, being the first Islamist leader in the country’s history to hold this position. Islamist parties scored less well in the first democratic election in Libya and, as a long-lasting legacy of the cruel civil war fought between Islamist armed groups and the military in the 1990s in Algeria, parliamentary elections there remained scarcely competitive throughout the 2010s. What is worth noting, however, is that in all those countries in which Islamist parties achieved an initial breakthrough their gains were short-lived.

Their most dramatic downfall took place in Egypt. On July 3, 2013, armed forces staged a military coup, removing the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the MB, and suspending the Parliament. In response to the coup d’état, the MB organized two permanent sit-ins in al-Nahda Square and Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which were violently raided by armed forces after a few weeks. At least 1,000 people lost their lives in the worst mass killing of civilians in the country’s republican history. In the following months, the crackdown against the MB escalated further: the organization was outlawed and declared a terrorist group, the leadership jailed, and hundreds of militants sentenced were put through farcical trials and sentenced to death, often with suspended sentences. The most emblematic moment was perhaps former president Morsi’s death in June 2019 due to poor conditions in the jail where he was being held.

Though somewhat less dramatic, recent events have not played into the hands of Tunisian Islamists either. In an attempt to avoid a concentration of power that might have polarized society and jeopardized democracy, Ennahda did not put forward any candidate in the 2014 presidential election. Such a decision was reversed in 2019, but Ennahda’s candidate nonetheless came in third. Consequently, the Islamists have concentrated their institutional activity in parliament, where they have constantly formed coalition governments with other non-religious forces. This strategy, however, has been put at risk by President Saïed’s recent decision to suspend parliament, hitting the political center of gravity of the Islamists and unleashing a serious internal crisis that is currently jeopardizing the mere survival of Ennahda. Islamists latest setback came from the recent parliamentary election in Morocco held in September 2021. Benkirane’s party – the Justice and Development Party (PJD in French) – after having consolidated its previous gains in the 2016 election, suffered a serious defeat, winning just 13 seats with a net loss of 112. Accordingly, the PJD lost the possibility to nominate the prime minister.

This perfectly represents the overall trajectory of Islamist parties in North Africa over the last decade, which have proved unable to consolidate and defend initial gains. One of the main explanations is the significant transformation that Islamist parties have undergone in the last decades. The re-emergence of political Islam in the 1970s was first and foremost a reaction against the failure of the various forms of state-led development to deliver what they had promised. As soon as North African states aligned themselves with Western powers and promoted economic liberalization, political Islam became the voice of conservative middle classes and disgruntled lower classes. Although it never spoke against free market, political Islam combined anti-imperialism, social justice, wealth redistribution, and morality. By the early 2000s, however, Islamist parties had already changed significantly, and had begun to support neoliberal positions in a consistent way. This did not affect their electoral results yet, it became problematic once they achieved power, especially in those situations in which political Islam reflected the electoral will of the revolutionary process. Finding themselves between the proverbial rock of neoliberal austerity and the hard place of satisfying popular demands, Islamist parties have succumbed to economic diktats for which they paid a high price at the ballot boxes.



[1] https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/the-future-of-nonviolent-resistance-2/

[2] See S. M. Lipset, “Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 1, 1959. More recently, J. Møller, S. Skaaning, Democracy and Democratization in Comparative Perspective. Conceptions, Conjunctures, Causes, and Consequences, Routledge, 2013; A. Przeworski, M. Alvarez; J. Cheibub, & F. Limongi, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990, Cambridge University Press, 2000.


Cover Photo: Iraqi President Barham Saleh (2-L) and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi (R) receive Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (2-R), and Jordan’s King Abdullah II (L) – Baghdad, June 27, 2021 (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP).

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