Democracy and the Military Challenge: Challenging strongmen: The battle for ideas

The Samir Kassir Foundation and the Carnegie Middle East Center organized a panel discussion on “Democracy and the Military Challenge” on May 21, 2015. Mona Sukkarieh from MESP contributed the following short essay as an introduction to the debate.

Fuelled by regional tensions, the Middle East has become the largest market for arms sale, with around $110 billion expected to be spent on weapons imports in the coming decade. After years of instability, and, for some, hope for better socio-political conditions, the strongmen, sometimes in military uniforms, appear to be making a comeback.

The growing threat that radical movements are posing has turned into an existential danger. The gravity of the situation is not yet measured by all – a flaw that blurs the reading grid of many, leading to total incomprehension of recent developments.

The spectacle of billions poured on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt is a sign of alarm, much more so than a sign of trust in the former Field Marshal’s regime. What if Egypt, with its population of 88 billion, its central location, and traditional appeal throughout the Arab and Muslim world, slips away?

Whether we admit it or not, the existential threat posed by radical movements has taken the front stage and dwarfed hopes for socio-political changes. This existential threat is soliciting a panicked response, that is taking multiple forms: a global – though weak – coalition conducting targeted missions; pledging billions of dollars to boost strongmen; or, even, reconsidering positions vis-à-vis certain dictators, however bloodthirsty they are.

Would it be a stretch of the imagination to expect a potential strongman in other troubled countries in the region, possibly donning a uniform, to force his way through, bank on this existential threat, promise stability, and hope for world backing? Is Sisi’s Egypt a lone case or a first in a series?

The existential threat posed by radical movements, who, for various reasons, have found more backing among host populations than we would have liked, is erecting actual and psychological barriers that are increasingly isolating our region from the rest of the world, which, despite problems here and there, has rarely been that appeased. Against this backdrop, few options have emerged, which explains the renewed appeal for strongmen. It is hard to assess, at this point, how successful they will be in containing this threat, but for the moment, they are emerging as the most promising response.

To deny the gravity of the threat, and the absence of effective alternatives to contain it, condemns us to be crushed by pragmatism. Syria is the latest example.

Acknowledging how the other perceives this threat is the first step towards understanding their choices, including the renewed appeal for strongmen, in uniforms or not.

عسكر على مين؟

Possibly to contain what many throughout the world now perceive as the most imminent, most perverse threat to humankind in decades… even if we strongly believe there are more imminent dangers, personified in dictators crushing hopes for better socio-political conditions.

If [contributing to] “stability” and “containment” [of radical movements] are proving to be the decisive elements in favor of strongmen, as opposed to other keywords, such as “democratization” or “human rights”, how can other political forces position themselves to play a role in ensuring stability and containing radical Islam?

There is a growing difficulty convincing people, in and outside the region, that democracy is the only way to overcome radical Islamism. So far, every retreat of dictatorship was accompanied by an advance of Islamism. Since the beginning of uprisings in the Arab world, “democratic forces” have failed to propose an agenda appealing to the masses, as the results of various elections have demonstrated. Ironically, they have even failed to display diversity: With an overwhelming presence of forces on the left-side of the political spectrum (including movements who have not demonstrated a particular attachment to democratic values), they appear to be as diverse as the regimes they denounce.

For “democratic forces”, this is a time for introspection and reinvention. The stakes are high: their own failure in recent years has been extrapolated by many to highlight that people in this region cannot accommodate democracy. Absent that, a question we have long been used to hear will make its grand return: Is an “authoritarian modernization” the best the people in this region can aspire to?

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