Resist Trump Ralley, January 30, 2017. By Joe Crimmings via flickr.com. CC-BY-2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As Populists Rise in the West, Arab Autocrats Rejoice

The decay of democratic norms in European and U.S. policy-making plays into the hands of autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa.

While Prime Minister Theresa May officially announced the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the EU on 29 March 2017, and constant leaks and news from the White House about President Donald Trump’s latest ideas and decrees confused, scared and amused wide parts of the global public, the annual summit of the League of Arab States was held in Jordan. From 23 to 29 March, the summit brought together heads of state and government from the league’s 22 member states to discuss current developments in the Arab world.

Two issues in particular were severely criticized by attendees of the summit: a) Israel’s approval of further Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which the Arab leaders perceive as illegal, combined with an apparent lack of willingness on the part of the Israeli government to accept the U.N.’s plan for a two-state solution; and b) the lack of Arab influence on the conflict in Syria, which is primarily dominated by the external powers Russia, Turkey, the U.S. and Iran.

While Islamophobia was criticized in general terms, with particular reference to the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, no criticism was made of the growing influence of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States. Yet many aspects of this trend should be a cause for concern for Arab leaders too in light of the connected rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe and the U.S.

If asked, Arab representatives would have probably mentioned their rejection of external intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. This was precisely what Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi criticized during his speech in Jordan, namely the intrusion of Europeans and Americans into the region. However, the real reason for this noble refrain on non-interventionism presumably is that almost all Middle Eastern governments have a great deal to gain from the declining role played by democratic principles in European and U.S. policy-making.

Victor Orbán’s increasingly aggressive hate speech against immigrants and calls for the closure of European borders, Beata Szydło’s efforts to undermine the independence of the Polish judiciary and media, nationalist tendencies in the UK in the wake of the Brexit referendum and in Turkey under the increasingly self-aggrandizing Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and growing numbers of attacks by right-wing extremists against foreigners, homosexuals or leftists in much of the occident – all of this plays into the hands of the autocratic Arab leaders who succeeded in silencing the mass demonstrations of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 demanding bread, freedom and social justice.

Indeed, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) shows a clear downward trend in its “Democracy Status” for East-Central and Southeast Europe, as well as the Middle East and North Africa (see table 1). Tunisia (since 2011) and Poland (up to 2015, under prime ministers Donald Tusk and Ewa Kopacz) were rare positive outliers in these regions. Turkey made remarkable improvements throughout the 2000s, but has also embarked on a negative trend since the 2010 edition of the BTI. Many other countries in both regions follow similar patterns.


Figure 1: Data from the BTI 2008 – 2016 show the clear downward trend in the “Democracy Status” of the CEE and MENA regions (thick blue lines in each chart).

The BTI’s twin project, the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), shows similar trends for core OECD countries, among them the United States: while the quality of U.S. democracy declined only marginally from 8.4 in the 2014 edition of the SGI to 8.1 in 2016, a further and more dramatic decline can be expected in the next edition. Similarly (and of particular relevance to Arab leaders), Israel’s score in the SGI’s “Quality of Democracy” section fell from 6.9 (SGI 2014) to 6.7 (SGI 2016) under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and will see a further decline in the upcoming edition of the indicators.

From the Arab leaders’ perspective, the current loss of democratic quality in Europe and the U.S. is a boon, as it lowers the pressure for democratic reforms in their own countries. While already the Obama and Cameron administration’s calls for the rule of law, protection of minorities and freedom of speech were already far too often mere lip service, Trump’s and May’s rhetoric has become even less convincing.

Likewise, even devoted democratic leaders such as François Hollande in France, Angela Merkel in Germany and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands have changed their tone and policies towards less openness and more control, fearing the pressure from the Front National, Alternative für Deutschland and Partij voor de Vrijheid. This pressure has been increased by the alleged involvement of Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin in various European anti-democratic movements.

While this is music to the ears of Arab dictators, those striving for democracy in these countries must bear the consequences. The results are already visible: while the pre-2011 regimes have returned to power in almost all countries, human rights activists have been killed, arrested or forced into exile. While Turkey competes for the title of the world’s largest prison for journalists, President Erdogan is seeking to secure absolute power through the shady constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017. While poverty increases dramatically in Egypt, the country’s kleptocratic army strengthens its political and economic influence and secures the state’s remaining resources for its already privileged generals.

Yet: What can Europeans say about the lack of academic freedom in the Middle East when in their own heartland liberal universities are threatened by sudden legal action demanding to fulfill requirements that were not there before? What can Americans say about the lack of press freedom in the Middle East when “alternative facts” become the norm in government speeches? What can Europeans say about the lack of regional cooperation in the Middle East when nationalism once again becomes a dominating factor in Western discourse?

In 2010, Francesco Cavatorta proposed the idea of a convergence between authoritarian and democratic systems, meaning that the former become more democratic, and the latter more autocratic. In the meantime, we must be careful not to allow both types of system to develop in a parallel manner: for the worse.


Jan Claudius Völkel is Marie Skłodowska Curie Research Fellow at the Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He is the Regional Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa for the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) and author of the BTI 2016 MENA Regional Report.



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