In a highly polarized world, authoritarianism thrives in the Middle East. According to a credible poll, a majority of citizens in the Arab world are losing faith in democracy as a system of government that ensures economic stability. It frighteningly suggests a reversal of what the popular uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring demanded more than a decade ago. This will be music to the ears of autocratic rulers, but a source of deep consternation for democracy promoters around the world.
The results come from an opinion poll conducted by the Arab Barometer network for BBC News Arabic. It included interviews with nearly 23,000 people in nine Arab countries and the Palestinian territories. Most respondents agreed that “an economy in a democracy is weak” and therefore democracy was not a high priority for them.
This contradicts calls for democratic reforms in the Arab Spring protests that swept several Arab countries in 2011 and 2012. The uprisings caused the fall of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya (although in the case of the latter with the help of NATO intervention). They sparked a very bloody conflict in Syria and drew the attention of a number of pro-Western, oil-rich, conservative Arab rulers. Iran also felt the effects as it spurred opposition to its theocratic order.
While Yemen, Libya and Syria continued to be mired in bloody conflicts and prompted interventions from outside actors due to conflicting geopolitical interests, Egypt quickly reverted to authoritarian rule and the forces of the status quo pitted against the forces of change in other parts of the world region through. Tunisia thrived as the only beacon of hope for pro-democracy advocates, but as of 2021 it too has found itself on a slippery slope towards authoritarian rule. President Kais Saied has virtually destroyed the country’s elected parliamentary system to support strong presidential rule. His actions have outraged pro-democracy forces, but he has justified them by saying the system has not brought stability and prosperity. He seems to have sufficient support not only from state authorities, but also from those layers of the population who have found the transition to democracy too strenuous.
The only Arab segment that has expressed a preference for democracy is the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. Yet they are isolated, and many analysts would argue that they have been abandoned by most Arab countries. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have normalized ties with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has forged informal ties with the Jewish state. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel. This is a far cry from the days when most Arab states made any form of relationship with Israel conditional on an end to its occupation of the Palestinian lands and the creation of an independent Palestinian state of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
US democracy, let alone that of its traditional European allies, used to inspire many in the Arab world. But that no longer seems to be the case given the democratic chaos dominating the American landscape and the way the US has been geopolitically behaving in the region. America’s botched invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and its support for the status quo in the Middle East have not only raised serious doubts about its reliability as an ally, but have also weakened its status as an effective global actor in the face of the rise of China and Russia as potent rivals.
Many in the Arab domain could see that narrow-minded rule in China and Russia helped propel them to new heights. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be distressing for most of them, but it has also prompted the US and its allies to turn to the leaders of oil-rich Arab states for relief from soaring energy prices. US President Joe Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron have seen fit to forget their earlier denunciation of Saudi Arabia’s de-factor ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and have chosen him despite his alleged role in the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Embracing Khashoggi 2018 in Istanbul.
In this evolving polarized world, the balance is certainly tipping in favor of authoritarianism in the Middle East. This poses a challenge that the US and its Democratic allies may not easily meet. We are already in the midst of another Cold War between democracies and autocracies, and Arab rulers may continue to benefit by increasing their influence over their societies for the foreseeable future.