While Theresa May was officially announcing the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the EU, and the latest in a constant flow of leaks and statements from the White House about President Donald Trump’s ideas and decrees confused, scared and amused the global public, the annual summit of the League of Arab States took place in Jordan. From 23 to 29 March, the summit brought together heads of state and government from the 22 member states to discuss current developments in their world.
Two issues in particular were severely criticized by attendees of the summit: a) Israel’s approval of further Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which the Arab leaders perceive as illegal, combined with an apparent lack of willingness on the part of the Israeli government to accept the UN’s plan for a two-state solution; and b) the lack of Arab influence on the conflict in Syria, which is primarily dominated by the external powers Russia, Turkey, the US and Iran.
The growing influence of right-wing populism in Europe and the US, however, went without critical comment. Yet many aspects of this trend should be a cause for concern for Arab leaders too in light of the connected rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia in both regions.
If asked, Arab representatives would probably have mentioned their rejection of external intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. This was precisely what Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi criticized during his speech in Jordan, namely the intrusion of Europeans and Americans into the region. However, the real reason for this noble refrain on non-interventionism presumably is that almost all Middle Eastern governments have a great deal to gain from the declining role played by democratic principles in European and US policy-making.
Victor Orbán’s increasingly aggressive hate speech against immigrants and calls for the closure of European borders, Beata Szydło’s efforts to undermine the independence of the Polish judiciary and media, nationalist tendencies in the UK in the wake of the Brexit referendum and in Turkey under the increasingly self-aggrandizing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and growing numbers of attacks by right-wing extremists against foreigners, homosexuals or leftists in much of the occident – all of this plays into the hands of the autocratic Arab leaders who succeeded in silencing the mass demonstrations of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011.
Indeed, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) shows a clear downward trend in its ‘Democracy Status’ for East-Central and Southeast Europe, as well as the Middle East and North Africa (see table 1). Tunisia (since 2011) and Poland (up to 2015, under prime ministers Donald Tusk and Ewa Kopacz) were rare positive outliers in these regions. Turkey made remarkable improvements throughout the 2000s, but has also embarked on a negative trend since the 2010 edition of the BTI. Many other countries in both regions follow similar patterns.
Figure 1: Data from the BTI 2008 – 2016 show the clear downward trend in the ‘Democracy Status’ of the CEE and MENA regions (thick blue lines in each chart)
The BTI’s twin project, the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), shows similar trends for core OECD countries, among them the US: while the quality of US democracy declined only marginally from 8.4 in the 2014 SGI edition to 8.1 in 2016, a further and more dramatic decline can be expected in the next edition. Similarly (and of particular relevance to Arab leaders), Israel’s score in the SGI’s ‘Quality of Democracy’ section fell from 6.9 (SGI 2014) to 6.7 (SGI 2016) under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and will see a further decline in the upcoming edition.
From the Arab leaders’ perspective, the current loss of democratic quality in Europe and the US is a boon, as it lowers the pressure for democratic reforms in their own countries. While the Obama and Cameron administration’s calls for the rule of law, protection of minorities and freedom of speech were already far too often mere lip service, Trump’s and May’s rhetoric has become even less convincing.
Likewise, even devoted democratic leaders such as François Hollande in France, Angela Merkel in Germany and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands have changed their tone and policies towards less openness and more control, fearing the pressure from the Front National, Alternative für Deutschland and Partij voor de Vrijheid. This pressure has been increased by the alleged involvement of Vladimir Putin in various European anti-democratic movements.
While this is music to the ears of Arab dictators, those striving for democracy in these countries must bear the consequences. The results are already visible: while the pre-2011 regimes have returned to power in almost all countries, human rights activists have been killed, arrested or forced into exile. While Turkey competes for the title of the world’s largest prison for journalists, Erdoğan secured absolute power through the shady constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017. While poverty increases dramatically in Egypt, the country’s kleptocratic army strengthens its political and economic influence and secures the state’s remaining resources for its already privileged generals.
Yet: What can Europeans say about the lack of academic freedom in the Middle East when in their own heartland liberal universities are threatened by sudden legal action? What can Americans say about the lack of press freedom in the Middle East when ‘alternative facts’ become the norm in presidential speeches? What can Europeans say about the lack of regional cooperation in the Middle East when nationalism re-emerges as a dominating factor in Western discourse?
In 2010, Francesco Cavatorta proposed the idea of a convergence between authoritarian and democratic systems, meaning that the former become more democratic, and the latter more autocratic. Indeed, the discourses about ‘securitising politics’ throughout the 2000s, and the idea of having suffering economies governed by technocrats instead of elected politicians, were clear signals of democratic losses. Meanwhile, Arab autocrats tried to present their regimes in a more fashionable manner – a category Cavatorta called ‘liberal authoritarianism’. In the meantime, however, we must be careful not to allow both types of system to develop in a parallel manner: for the worse. Clearly, if democracy in Europe and the US continues to lose substance, it will have negative repercussions far beyond their shores. The recent protests against the predominance of populism in governments and discourses is a hopeful sign that more and more Europeans and Americans understand that it is time to defend democracy. This is also a hopeful sign for the remaining democracy activists on the Mediterranean’s southern shore.