In an editorial, The Observer says: There was something distasteful, and deeply disturbing, about last week’s photograph of Bashar al-Assad casting his vote in a Damascus polling station, watched by his beautifully coiffured wife, Asma, and adoring supporters. Distasteful because even as the Syrian leader brandished his ballot paper, his military forces were dropping a barrel bomb, the regime’s new terror weapon of choice, on the citizens of Aleppo. Disturbing because such a staged photograph is an established trademark of democracy around the world. It is the sort of picture elected politicians everywhere like to pose for. It sends a reassuring message of order, normality and one-person, one-vote humility. You see: the great man is just like you and me.
Except Assad is not an ordinary guy. No man of the people he, Assad is a dictator whose “presidential election”, held only in those urban areas under government control and boycotted by all credible opposition groups, was a travesty and a sham. He rules because his late father, Hafez, and Syria’s Alawite oligarchy handed him the job in 2000. Early on, he fluffed good opportunities to pursue reform. Since the initially peaceful demonstrations against his regime began more than three years ago, he has proved himself, by turns, foolish, craven and vicious. He exacerbated divisions and escalated the war by resorting to ever more extreme, indiscriminate violence. He is not an elected president. He is a killer and a war criminal with the names of 162,000 dead Syrians on his personal electoral roll.
Historically speaking, Assad is something else, too: a political “strongman” in the dismaying tradition of a region that seems pitifully prone to domination by fiercely driven, unscrupulous and often unsavoury individuals with dictatorial tendencies. In recent times, Saddam Hussein in Iraq was one such; Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was another. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a former general, succeeded Anwar Sadat, himself a political heir to the arch-strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, following Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, Egypt is once again on the receiving end of strongman politics with the rise of another general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. His ascent to the presidency was supposedly legitimised in last month’s national elections. But despite being virtually unopposed, he took only 23m out of 53m potential votes on a turnout well below 50%.
Time will tell whether Sisi is the firm-handed, sure-footed leader Egypt needs, as his backers claim. But one thing is already clear: he is no democrat and most Egyptian voters know it. Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, remains in jail after his ousting last year by Sisi’s armed forces, along with 15,000 of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. An estimated 1,400 people have died. Sisi’s intimidatory shadow hovers over Egypt’s institutions, including the judiciary and media. An official personality cult is in the making. And in an approach that has resonated as far as Bangkok, where Thai military coup leaders seem to have taken a cue from Sisi, Egypt’s new strongman stresses stability over human rights and civic freedoms. How he plans to tackle Egypt’s crushing economic and social problems is less certain. However he does it, he is sure to do it firmly.
Strongman politics is both contagious and increasingly back in fashion across the Middle East, where the democratic promise of the Arab Spring revolts has mostly turned to dust and tears. [Continue reading…]