What the return of the Arab strongman means for the Middle East

October 23, 2015
Egyptian President al-Sisi waves during opening ceremony of new Suez Canal, in Ismailia, Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) waves during the opening ceremony of the new Suez Canal, in Ismailia, Egypt, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

On Oct. 18, Egypt began the first phase of parliamentary elections, but many voters shunned the balloting and turnout is estimated at a measly 15 percent. Most Egyptians seem to have decided that the election results are a foregone conclusion, with a new parliament that will kowtow to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s iron-fisted regime in the absence of any meaningful opposition.

When Sisi and the Egyptian military ousted the country’s first democratically elected president two years ago, they promised a quick return to democracy and civilian rule. But like much else in Egypt’s modern history, those promises did not materialize. Instead, Sisi has turned into a strongman. And like the strongmen of an earlier generation in the Middle East, Sisi has dangled the promise of reform while finding new ways to consolidate his power.

With most opposition banned or imprisoned, the new legislature will be stacked with Sisi loyalists after the second round of voting ends in late November. The elections underscore how fully Sisi has transitioned into the role of strongman, and how far the Middle East has moved from the early promise of the 2011 Arab uprisings, which toppled then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other dictators. Sisi is the latest in a line of military strongmen to rule Egypt, since the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952.

Egypt spiraled into a cycle of state-sanctioned violence, repression and vengeance soon after the military removed Mohamed Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from power in July 2013. The new military-backed government launched an aggressive campaign to suppress all political opponents, hunt down leaders of the Brotherhood who fled after the coup, and undo many of the gains made during the 2011 revolution. Human rights groups estimate that the Egyptian regime is holding more than 40,000 political prisoners, many of them supporters of the Brotherhood.

Egypt has avoided the large scale post-revolutionary bloodshed in Syria, Libya and Yemen. But after Mursi’s ouster, Islamic militants intensified an insurgency centered in the North Sinai, killing hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and policemen. Many of the militants later declared their allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Sisi, who was Mursi’s defense minister and the coup’s main instigator, was elected president in May 2014 with nearly 97 percent of the vote — he faced a single, obscure opponent. Since then, Sisi has restored many elements of military rule, returned officials from Mubarak’s former regime to power and issued laws by fiat since Egypt has not had a parliament for three years. (In June 2012, an Egyptian court dissolved the new parliament, which had been elected in late 2011 and was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.)

For a short while, it seemed that the era of rule by strongmen in the Middle East was coming to an end. In October 2011, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was captured hiding in a drainage pipe near his hometown of Sirte, and he was beaten and shot dead by rebels, bringing his 42 years in power to an ignoble end. His contemporaries were the likes of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, military men from poor families and hardscrabble towns who fought their way to the top, riding the wave of revolutionary sentiment that swept the Arab world in the 1960s and ’70s.

Their inspiration was Egypt’s Nasser and his Free Officers Movement, who pledged to rid the Arab world of the vestiges of colonial rule. Nasser’s rousing speeches, heard across the region via the newly invented transistor radio, kindled visions of Arab unity. It was a time of upheaval, in which the merchant and feudal elites — the allies of the old European colonial powers — were losing their grip. At first, Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad appeared to embody a promising new era of reform. But these leaders and others quickly suppressed any opposition, executed their critics and squandered national resources.

By 2011, one by one, the strongmen began to teeter and fall. A new generation of revolutionaries had fostered a revitalized sense of pan-Arab identity united around demands for broad political and social rights. As the protests that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, each uprising was inspired by the others. A vanguard of civilian leaders emerged from the revolts, and although they drew on some of the old Arab nationalist doctrine — anti-colonial rhetoric and resistance to Israel — they were well aware of the failures of the strongmen and their generation.

The protesters no longer accepted a social contract in which they effectively made peace with government repression, arbitrary laws, state-run media and censorship, and single-party rule, in exchange for security and stability. Instead, they demanded justice, freedom, and dignity. “The people should not fear their government,” read a popular placard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution. “Governments should fear their people.”


In mid-June, an Egyptian court upheld the death penalty against Mursi, the first Muslim Brotherhood leader to assume the presidency of an Arab country. He was initially sentenced to death in May, along with more than 100 co-defendants, for taking part in an alleged prison break. It was the latest in a series of sham trials and mass death sentences decreed by the judiciary since the coup. The Brotherhood’s recent experience in Egypt shows that authoritarian and secular forces, which often fare poorly at the ballot box, will mobilize to undermine the Islamists before they have had a chance to rule fully.

When it deposed Mursi, the military insisted it was acting on the will of the Egyptian people, who had grown disenchanted with his clumsy rule and disastrous economic policies. But the army didn’t stop there: It arrested Mursi along with thousands of other Brotherhood leaders and activists, shut down media outlets sympathetic to the Islamists, and banned the movement from Egyptian political life entirely.

Then, in August 2013, the army and security forces opened fire on thousands of Mursi’s supporters who were engaged in a peaceful sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square, killing at least 1,000 people. In a report one year later, Human Rights Watch called the massacre “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”

In the decades leading up to the Arab uprisings of 2011, Islamist parties across the region renounced violence and committed to participating in electoral politics. But now, Islamists view the Egyptian military’s coup and subsequent crackdown as a signal that election results will not be respected. The process can spiral out of control, as it did in Algeria in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of winning parliamentary elections, and the military intervened to cancel the second round of voting. That coup set off an eight-year war civil war that killed more than 100,000 people.

Many in the Arab world and the West have failed to grasp this danger: While authoritarian rule appears to provide stability over the short term, it breeds discontent and affirms the idea that violence is the only way to be heard. It also sets up a dichotomy favored by Sisi, Assad and the strongmen of an earlier generation, where Arabs are stuck between only two choices: authoritarian and nominally secular rule, or life under Islamist extremists like al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

Rulers who demonize all Islamists and other opponents as terrorists who must be suppressed nurture a self-fulfilling prophecy, allowing them to repeat the pattern of repression that leads to more radicalization. For the strongman to keep power, there can be no other choice.




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“Arabs are stuck between only two choices: authoritarian and nominally secular rule, or life under Islamist extremists like al Qaeda or the Islamic State.”


The far greater risk to human freedom are Islamic extremists, therefore authoritarian secular rule / dictatorship is indispensable. Sad, but clear-eyed reality in an intractably broken world.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

It is becoming clear that the only successful Government is a Dictator in the Middle East. If you look at the History of Saddam Hussein. He was able to squash secular In fighting and Educated his People and was able to get things done and kept Iran in Check. We cannot build Nations. The reason for this is the Extreme mixture of Government and Politics and the Sectarian battle between cultures that have been like that for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Hereditary ingrained Cultural prejudice that they kill each other over. A Russian General was asked why they Invaded Afghanistan, he stated to drag these people kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. I would think the only thing that will fix the middle East is a massive UFO landing and explaining their Place in the Universe.

Posted by terrencegtrman | Report as abusive

In a way Iran is close to that even if he does somewhat listen to the people. It does seem to be true. To some extent there has to be separation of religion and government. Except for many that cannot be either. So there is one extreme or the other. The dictator who cares some about the people seems to be winning in ME.

Posted by RonStn | Report as abusive

the inaccuracies in this article are stunning for reuters. Sisi’s opponent in the election was not an “obscure opponent”. Anyone who says that has either never followed Egypt after 2011 or is straight out lying. his opponent was one of the key figures of 2011 and ranked third in the first presidential election scoring quite highly as the third candidate next to the two candidates who ran in the second round. I know as I voted for him in that round and most definitely chose not to vote for him when he ran against Sisi. he is a huge public figure in Egyptian political scene. why call him obscure unless if you want to argue sisi’s support was fabricated?

moving to “state sanctioned” violence after Morsi was removed without one word about the massive violence by the Islamists on the streets for the months that followed, the burning of churches across the country ad the horrors that christians suffered can only be explained as intentional manipulation of facts. why?

I would have accepted your analysis that Sisi is gradually turning into a strongman had your facts not being clearly manipulated.. really hard to believe that Reuters allows such a blatant “omission” about the violence against christians and blatant “manipulation” claiming that Hamdeen Sahahy (Sisi’s opponent) was “an obscure opponent”. Shame on you.

Posted by Maha21 | Report as abusive

Both recent commentators have ignored the authors message that democratically elected moderate Islamists ruled Egypt, with unprecedented freedoms, and were mostly accepted by its people, while rejected by its army/security forces and regional powers who conspired to remove him.

Why was Mursi removed ? Because a democratic moderate Islamist with a good track record in governing will shake the foundation of the despotic powers in the region.

Turkey has shown that moderate Islamists can strike a balance between good governance and economic development.

Posted by saharadweller | Report as abusive

It never ceases to amaze me at what you can get folks living in privation to accept.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Al-sisi is sympathetic with Mubarak and now America woo him! What a mess.can democracy be exported any how or or can democracy campaign successful politically!!!

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive