By Alaa Bayoumi
A new wave of anti-democratic momentum is spreading across the Arab world, targeting regimes and movements that supported the Arab Spring.
It has been accelerated by Trump’s latest visit to the region, which gave US backing to some of the region’s most authoritarian regimes. However, the roots of the new anti-democracy and counter-revolutionary wave run much deeper.
They go back to the first few days of the Arab Spring – if not to the decades-old oppressive regimes that have been ruling the Arab states since independence.
Days after Trump departed the region, major oppressive and anti-democratic campaigns took place in several Arab countries.
In the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain cut their diplomatic relations with Qatar after a media war directed at the country. They also banned their citizens from travelling to Qatar and ordered Qatari citizens to leave within 14 days.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia closed its borders with Qatar, blocking vital food and basic supplies exported by land to its small Gulf neighbour. Egypt and Yemen followed their Gulf patrons and joined the boycott. Qatar has many options in this regard, with the Strait of Hormuz controlled by Oman and Iran and friendly relations with Kuwait, and any fears of a food crisis largely exaggerated and overblown.
Since Trump moved on, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have escalated their media attacks on Qatar. They first blocked Al Jazeera’s website in response to a bogus news report published by the Qatari state news agency, including remarks allegedly made by Qatar’s emir during a military graduation ceremony.
The statement – denied by Qatar and blamed on hackers – appeared to show Qatari support for Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and animosity towards its Gulf neighbours. Yet, despite Qatar’s official denials, a war of words intensified against Qatar, leading to today’s diplomatic boycott.
For the past six years, Qatar and Turkey have been widely blamed and attacked for their support for the Arab Spring.
They are seen by old regimes across the Arab world as regional sponsors of dissenting voices in Arab media and politics.
Political pressure on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries in 2014, led to the closure of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, one of Al Jazeera‘s TV channels that focused exclusively on Egyptian affairs, and which constituted a major headache for the Sisi regime.
In July 2013, Sisi had led a military coup, supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait against Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
Since then, Qatar has often been asked to tone down its media coverage of the Arab Spring and opposition movements.
In Egypt, authorities have moved to try Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer and a potential presidential candidate, accusing him of “offending public decency”. If convicted he would be disqualified from standing against President Sisi in forthcoming elections.
Amnesty described the trial as a “pre-emptive crushing of potential rivals” by Egyptian authorities.
Cairo has also banned more than 20 media outlets, including Al Jazeera – the Arab world’s most prominent news site – and Mada Masr, one of Egypt’s independent and most professional local news networks.
Sisi also ratified a controversial law regulating the work of NGOs. The law requires NGOs to acquire government approval before receiving donations larger than 10,000 Egyptian Pounds (about $550). It also gives the government the power to decide who can open an NGO and for what purpose.
The law is seen by human rights activists as an effective ban of Egypt’s NGOs and their work.
In Libya, forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general backed by Egypt and the UAE and who does not support the country’s UN-recognised government, have launched fresh military offensives aiming to capture cities and towns in Libya’s strategic Jufra desert.
The move will help expand Haftar’s control of the central parts of Libya, moving further towards the west, where the UN-backed Government of National Accord is based.
In addition, a series of airstrikes launched by Egypt against militias in control of the city of Derna, after a deadly attack claimed by the Islamic State group on Copts in the Egyptian city of Minya, has been seen by analysts as an attempt by the Egyptian regime to back Haftar, who has been leading a military campaign to capture power in the country since 2014.
In Yemen, meanwhile, forces loyal to the UAE have clashed with forces loyal to UN-backed President Hadi over control of Aden’s airport, killing one soldier and raising fears of further divisions within the fragile coalition fighting to liberate Yemen from the Houthi militias and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In early May, southern politicians loyal to the UAE launched a failed attempt to declare an autonomous authority in southern Yemen. The attempt was later condemned by the Saudi-led coalition.
In Bahrain, five people were killed and dozens detained after security forces raided a sit-in organised to protect the home of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia community. Qassim’s citizenship was revoked last year. Since then, hundreds of his supporters have been camping outside his home to prevent his arrest and deportation.
In addition, a Bahraini court banned the country’s main secular opposition group, The National Democratic Action Society. Amnesty International condemned the ruling as “a flagrant attack on freedom of expression and association” in the country.
The serious repressive developments cited here all took place within a few weeks, if not days, of Trump visiting Saudi Arabia and meeting with Arab and Muslim leaders.
During his speech at the American Muslim Summit, Trump was keen to emphasise his disdain for previous US policies that supported the spread of democracy and human rights in the region.
“In my inaugural address to the American people, I pledged to strengthen America’s oldest friendships, and to build new partnerships in pursuit of peace. I also promised that America will not seek to impose our way of life on others,” said Trump.
He also showered praise on the Saudi and Egyptian regimes and met with the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, promising him that America’s relations with Bahrain would not be strained again. Previously, Trump had decided to go ahead with a $5 billion sale of F16s to Bahrain. The deal was held up under the Obama administration for human rights concerns.
Trump’s strong backing for authoritarian Arab regimes, and his declared disdain for supporting democracy and human rights in the region may have accelerated a new wave of anti-democratic oppression. However, the roots of the counter-revolutionary movement are much deeper.
Authoritarian Arab regimes and interest groups were deeply disappointed with Obama’s decision to give up on old allies such as Egypt’s Mubarak, and support the pro-democracy protests that engulfed the region in early 2011.
And, for the past six years, they have done all they could to fund and support a counter-revolutionary movement across the Arab world.
A huge media and political campaign was funded to discredit all the political movements and parties – especially the Muslim Brotherhood – as well as the young activists who supported the Arab Spring.
A successful military coup was politically and financially backed in Egypt, and a similar coup led by Khalifa Haftar was backed in Libya – but it failed to capture more than a few main cities in the eastern parts of the country.
In Yemen, the Gulf countries reluctantly gave up on President Saleh and forced a watered-down political transition agreement on the pro-revolution forces. The agreement gave Saleh legal immunity against any possible trials for crimes committed during his role. This deal may have helped him to recover politically and to cooperate with the Iranian-backed Houthis to stage a successful coup in late 2014 against President Hadi.
In Syria, Russian and Iranian intervention helped rescue the Assad regime from near collapse, and crush the revolution that was turned by bloody oppression into an armed rebellion.
In Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, democratic movements were pressured by the old regimes, their loyalists, and foreign backers to give up power or to lower their political expectations.
Turkey and Qatar, who both played an important role in backing the Arab Spring, came under severe media and political pressures and were often portrayed as part of a global conspiracy led by the Obama administration to dismantle and destroy the Arab nation.
A tactical truce
However, for the past two and a half years, a tacit and tactical truce was reached between the pro- and counter-revolutionary camps in much of the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia, under the new leadership of King Salman, was keen on fighting the Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria and Houthi rebels in Yemen. For that, it needed the support of some pro-Arab Spring regimes, such as Turkey and Qatar, and movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in those two countries.
At that time, the Assad regime was near collapse and Saudi Arabia was hoping for an American-backed military campaign to remove him from power. Saudi Arabia was also keen on getting American support for its military campaign in Yemen.
To achieve its goals in Syria and Yemen, the counter-revolution was tamed across the Arab world. In Egypt, the Sisi regime was upset for what it saw as diminished Gulf-backing and a lack of financial support. In Libya, the military situation calmed after Haftar forces became more contained in the eastern parts of the country. And the media war between the pro-revolution and counter-revolution camps was toned down.
However, it seems that a series of recent events have led to the collapse of the temporary, tactical, and fragile truce.
The Russian intervention in Syria prevented regime collapse as well as any plans to topple Assad from the outside. Likewise, the rise of Trump freed Saudi Arabia from any American pressures over its war in Yemen.
The Egyptian regime meanwhile, became more emboldened and demanding after receiving strong backing from the Trump administration. Many European countries grew exhausted by the Arab civil war, and became willing to return to their old pragmatic and pro-status quo policies.
The counter-revolutionary forces felt no need to continue their tactical truce with the pro-revolutionary camp – and a new counter-revolutionary wave became imminent.
A new swell of authoritarianism may well be gaining ground. It has the potential to further support the Bahraini and Egyptian regimes to crush their opposition, and evade any demands for political reconciliation. Haftar’s forces in Libya may capture more cities and gain further international recognition and backing.
Media and diplomatic pressure on Turkey, Qatar and pro-change groups may also succeed in taming more opposition and silencing more voices of dissent.
However, like its predecessor, this new wave of counter-revolution will certainly fail to empower the authoritarian Arab regimes in the long term. It will fail to build strong states based on the rule of law and independent institutions. It will fail to build more tolerant societies and less oppressive regimes. It will fail to fight corruption and nepotism. It will also fail to provide the needed political and cultural environment to uproot extremists such as the Islamic State group.
After costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans and the world learned that military power alone could not solve a conflict or defeat an insurgency. They learned the need for an overall political strategy and solution. However, under the Trump administration, the Russian intervention in Syria, and the current Arab political order, the previous lessons seem forgotten.
A lot of time will pass and resources will be wasted before the world and Arab regimes realise the need to go back to basics and stop fighting those who want to build real stability based on democracy, freedom, and human rights.
Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.