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The Reawakening of Authoritarianism in the Middle East

The 2011 Arab awakening in the MENA region shocked many analysts and academics the world over. Many had summarised that authoritarianism was essentially resilient in these countries and there was no possibility of a social movement to unseat these ‘Sultanistic’ regimes. This theorem was proved incorrect.

However, if we examine the MENA region in recent months, we can see that there is an increasingly worrying trend occurring. Turkey and Israel, once seen as the shining examples of democratic style governments in the greater authoritarian Middle East have now reached a precipice where the foundations of democratic and liberal traditions are being challenged and even eroded. Could this be the final death knell for democracy in the Middle East?

Since 2013, there has been a shift back towards authoritarian tendencies in the region. Egypt was the first with its counterrevolution against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. This led to the election of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a renewed consolidation of power by the military establishment. Unfortunately, the civil sphere for dissidence is slowly being eroded in Egypt as el-Sisi is known for his reliance on using coercion indiscriminately. However, it is the trends in Israel and Turkey that are more worrying.

On Wednesday 25 May, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with Yisraeli Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu’s new coalition is now the most right-wing in Israeli history and Lieberman has taken the Defence portfolio; the most coveted and second most dominant position in the Israeli government. Lieberman is known for his harsh rhetoric, formally declaring that Arab-Israeli politicians were ‘terrorist collaborators’ and should be executed. His first act as Defence Minister has been the reinstatement of capital punishment in military courts for terrorism.

Adding to this has been a growing tendency of the current Likud government to constrain the cultural zeitgeist and educational platform by attempting to adhere it to strict ideological guidelines. For example, there has been a targeted effort against artists with current Minister of Culture Miri Regev proposing legislation that would withdraw art funding from groups who are not deemed loyal to the state. The proposed legislation would strip groups of funding if they “degrade state symbols or the flag, mark Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, deny Israel’s right to exist [and] reject Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State”. This legislation has an intonation of fascistic rhetoric as it seeks to repress freedom of expression.

The dramatic widespread support and solidarity for an Israeli soldier involved in the extrajudicial killing of an incapacitated Palestinian has also demonstrated that Israel’s traditions of social and political consensus on equality before the law, and of disavowing racism within the Israeli state, are starting to fracture.

There have been several prominent Israeli politicians who have called out these growing authoritarian tendencies. Former PM Ehud Barak has declared that Israel has been “infected with the seeds of fascism” and former Defence Minister Moshe Yallon signalled in his resignation speech that “extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the [governing] Likud Party”.

However as Israel may be leaning towards more nationalistic and authoritarian practices, the state still has a firm constitutional basis and free media which can act as a check and balance to these tendencies. Israel still has one of the most democratic parliaments in the world with no one party ever holding a majority in the Knesset. There is a growing movement and discontent in Israel against Netanyahu's policies, as they see this attack on the zeitgeist as an attempt to deflect what has been a lack of progress in stopping terrorism and fixing inherent socio-economic issues. Democracy is not dead in Israel but it is having a difficult time right now.

Turkey, on the other hand, has reached one of its lowest points in the history of the Republic. In 2013, the Gezi Park protests saw a mass mobilisation of Turkish citizens against a neo-liberal invasion of public space and growing authoritarianism of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) (who has been in power for 13 years). The protests were heavily suppressed and there was a crackdown on any dissidence. After corruption charges were levelled at members of the AKP in December 2013, there has been a systematic witch hunt against the AKP’s former allies – the Gulen movement. Journalists both domestic and foreign have felt the iron hand of the AKP-led state with media company seizures and arrests becoming a daily occurrence.

Slowly and steadily there has been an erosion of liberal and democratic institutions and traditions. Turkey can no longer say that it has an independent judiciary or free media anymore. As a consequence, there has been an accumulation and centralisation of power by current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. President Erdoğan has been actively promoting a “Turkish Style Presidency” which would see a “harmonisation of authority” vested into the executive authority of the presidency.

On 22 May, the AKP voted in a new Prime Minister - Binali Yildirim, a long time ally of Erdoğan. He replaced former PM Ahmet Davutoğlu – an Islamist academic who was the architect of Turkey’s failed policy in Syria. Davutoğlu was forced to resign being perceived to be “too independent” for the president’s liking after the EU-Turkey deal. PM Yildirim has stated that his current mandate is to give more power to the president and he has subsequently stacked the current cabinet with Erdoğan loyalists.

Adding to this is legislation that passed on 20 May, which strips parliamentarians of immunity. This is seen as a means to prosecute Kurdish politicians and remove them from parliament because of their “support of terror” – i.e. the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). With a snap election possibly occurring this summer, there is a chance that the AKP could obtain a full 367-seat majority to change the constitution without a referendum. The Turkish state has become fragile institutionally as power is slowly being centralised around the presidency. The prosecutions of Kurdish politicians will only lead to a radicalisation of the conflict in the South East of the country.

The growing authoritarianism in Israel and Turkey are very worrying trends. It appears as though the democratic discourse that made these countries formidable allies and leading examples away from the cold-war dictatorships associated with the Middle East has now changed. However, this shift toward popularism and authoritarianism seems to be occurring worldwide with the rise of populist and right-wing leaders in Europe and the United States.

However, hope is not lost. If we look to Tunisia, it has become a lone democracy in an ever-unstable region and as the Arab awakenings showed us, the Middle East is not an exception when people mobilise against economic, structural, ideological and social grievances.

Iain MacGillivray was the January-June 2016 Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: UNCTAD and Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών (edited) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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