There seems to be no limit to Europe’s and USA’s willingness to accept and even support autocrats in North Africa and the Middle East.
Consider the case of Egypt, Africa’s third most populous country. Since Egypt’s military seized power in a coup and thus ended a brief experiment with real democratization in July 2013, the Western media euphoria of the Arab Spring has been replaced by polite lack of interest in the country’s development.
Egypt’s ex-general and current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken full advantage of this media fatigue. Since the summer of 2013 he has steadily tightened the noose on the media and the civil society sector. At one point, only China bested Egypt in terms of absolute figures of imprisoned journalists – before Turkey’s president Erdogan outdid them both by a wide margin after the coup attempt in 2016. Currently, Egypt holds on to a respectable third rank with 25 imprisoned journalists. The crowning achievements of this policy occurred very recently. On May 24, Egypt blocked most of the few remaining independent news outlets in the country, including the tiny, but high-quality electronic newspaper Mada Masr. A few days later, on May 29, Al-Sisi ratified a new NGO law that spells catastrophe for the country’s already hard-pressed civil society. From now on, NGOs may only engage in social and development work, and activists face up to five years in jail for not complying with the law. This, and a new, forbiddingly bureaucratic regime for receiving donations makes it almost impossible for any NGO to function effectively. One of Egypt’s respected human rights activists, Gamal Eid, stated simply that the law “eliminates civil society in Egypt, whether human rights or development organizations.”
What is the US and European response to the authoritarian strangulation of the Arab Spring spirit? President Trump made a point of not wanting to “lecture” his colleagues in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and proceeded to join Al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for a happy group photo that almost defies description. But it is not only Trump that wants to stay friendly with the Arab autocrats. Under Obama, the policy of giving more than USD1.4 billion in annual aid to Egypt (of which $1.3 billion is military aid) continued unabated, even after the military coup in 2013 – and despite the fact that the Egyptian regime harasses American NGOs that work in the country. As for the EU, it too continues to support Egypt in such areas as “poverty alleviation” and “governance and transparency.” This, while the regime consistently pursues policies that increase inequality, co-opt or crush political institutions and decrease transparency. Seemingly oblivious to the irony, the EU issued only some concerned noises when news of the NGO law broke.
Al-Sisi’s authoritarian rule is not without historical precedent, of course. Gamal Abdel Nasser instituted complete corporatism in Egypt and ruthlessly crushed the opposition, particularly the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood. His repression of the Islamists contributed to the radicalization that spawned local and later global jihadism (it wasn’t the only factor, of course, but it contributed). Al-Sisi’s repression is comparable to Nasser’s, however Nasser at least had a political project beyond staying in power – and he was opposed by the West. Today, it is difficult for young Egyptians and other Arabs to avoid the conclusion that their oppressors are supported by Europe and the United States.
The implications are obvious, but as the Financial Times international affairs editor David Gardner concluded his book about the West’s Middle East policy, Last Chance:
[D]o not howl in incredulous outrage when forces incubated by [your choices] – however alien and evil – fly airliners into your buildings, bomb your resorts and hotels, your train systems and your embassies, your churches and your synagogues. Above all, do not when this happens keep insisting that ‘they hate us for our freedoms’ or that ‘the world has changed.’ It has not, precisely because you have chosen not to change it.
That was written in 2009. Western governments have since squandered their chances of making amends during the Arab Spring, and it seems that nothing can set them on a different course. For the West, short-term stability seems to take precedence over long-term security and human dignity.