Vol. 38 No. 5 · 3 March 2016

The Military and the Mullahs

Owen Bennett-Jones on army rule in Egypt and Pakistan

5484 words

On 4 October​ 1954 Pakistan’s army chief General Ayub Khan passed the hours of a sleepless night at the Dorchester Hotel in London writing ‘A Short Appreciation of Present and Future Problems of Pakistan’. It ran to 2500 words and outlined the general’s views on how best to manage a country that had existed for seven years but had been unable to agree a constitution. Fifty-two years later, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi composed a remarkably similar document. His 5000-word ‘Democracy in the Middle East’ was written at the US Army War College. Both essays are filled with the kind of breezy generalisations that can still be heard over the clink of whisky glasses in army officers’ mess rooms in the developing world. ‘Our people are mostly uneducated and our politicians not so scrupulous,’ Ayub Khan wrote, regretting that it was ‘too late to resile from universal suffrage, however great its shortcomings’. Sisi had similar misgivings: ‘It is one thing to say that democracy is a preferred form of government but quite another to adjust to its requirements and accept some of the risks that go with it.’

All the many military rulers in Pakistan and Egypt have expressed such views. And all of them have used the ‘national interest’ to justify being in power. They talk less often about their own institutional interests but occasionally they let down their guard. On 3 December 2011 Egypt’s official news agency published a story that quoted the minister of defence’s assistant for financial affairs, General Mahmoud Nasr. ‘The armed forces,’ he said, ‘have lent the central bank $1 billion.’ The state-run agency didn’t ask the general any of the many questions his statement raised but a few months later he made another public announcement: ‘Our money does not belong to the state,’ he said,

it is the sweat of the Ministry of Defence from the revenue of its enterprises … We will not allow the state to intervene in it … We will fight for our economic enterprises and we will not quit this battle. We will not leave our thirty-year sweat for somebody else to ravage it, and we will not allow anybody to come near the armed forces’ projects.

While it may be stretching a point to suggest that Egypt’s successive military-backed regimes have been driven by the profit motive, it is incontestable that the military’s economic interests give officers a reason to fear democratic accountability.

It is difficult to know just how far the militarisation of the Egyptian economy has gone, but retired Egyptian officers are often to be found running farms, tourist hotels and supermarkets. They are protected from competition by a plethora of hidden subsidies: tax breaks, easy access to bank loans and the services of the military police to break inconvenient strikes; labour activists sometimes end up in military courts. Yet when senior officers survey their business empires they seem not to be aware that the playing field has been tilted in their favour: instead they congratulate themselves on their personal abilities. Their profits, they believe, demonstrate the superiority of the military mind and the organisational skills that come with a life of discipline and hard work. In Pakistan the two biggest army businesses are the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust. The Fauji Foundation’s assets include sugar mills, chemical plants and fertiliser factories, as well as one of Pakistan’s biggest financial institutions, the Askari Bank. These and other similar military corporations that exist on a national scale are, for all practical purposes, run from GHQ.

There are, even so, important differences in the nature of military power in Egypt and Pakistan. For all the talk of rogue elements in the lower and middle ranks of the ISI, the Pakistan army has complete control of the country’s most powerful intelligence agency. Neither the police nor any of the agencies under civilian control – Intelligence Bureau, the FIA – can match the ISI’s willingness and capacity to use force to influence domestic politics. In Egypt, by contrast, the Interior Ministry’s security apparatus has emerged as a rival to military power. The army consequently saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to reassert the authority which, since the heady days of Nasser, had steadily been ceded to other state institutions. Also significant is the greater willingness of the Egyptian military to confront, imprison and even kill not only Islamists but liberals as well. Nonetheless, what the two systems have in common remains more important than what divides them. In both countries, ‘deep states’ have emerged in which serving and retired army, police and intelligence officials, together with senior bureaucrats and millionaire crony capitalists, have taken it on themselves to protect what they see as the higher interests of the nation. Mubarak may have fled to his home on the Red Sea but activists continued to be followed by the same internal intelligence agents as before. Whatever was happening at the top, the deep state remained intact. When revolutionary protesters ransacked sensitive government offices, security personnel were posted outside to prevent any files being removed. In Pakistan there are similar hidden forces that see it as their duty to defend the country’s nuclear weapons and to keep India at bay. Thus, whenever a civilian government seems set on making peace with India, state-controlled militants mount cross-border attacks – the raid on India’s Pathankot army base in January is the latest instance.

Yet for all their skill in amassing wealth and power, the Pakistan and Egyptian armies preside over dysfunctional states incapable of enforcing the rule of law, providing basic health services, building schools or creating jobs. In 2015, Pakistan ranked 147 out of 188 countries in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Gross national income per head stood at $4454 and life expectancy at 66.2. While it’s true that military governments in Pakistan have tended to produce higher growth rates than civilian ones, army officers bear a large part of the blame for these terrible figures. To take just one example, the military’s determination to block the development of trade with India until there is political movement on the Kashmir issue has constrained successive civilian governments. As both Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif know, enabling free trade with India would probably do more than any other policy decision to enable Pakistan to raise the living standards of its people. But the army blocked both men’s attempt to make it happen. The Egyptian military has similarly shown little interest in those parts of the economy it doesn’t own. A US diplomatic dispatch released by WikiLeaks in 2008 shows how the Egyptian army and in particular the minister of defence, Field Marshal Tantawi, think. ‘In the cabinet,’ it read, ‘where he still wields significant influence, Tantawi has opposed both economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power. He is supremely concerned with national unity.’ As for General Sisi, he has said nothing to indicate that he would be any more successful than Tantawi in implementing an economic policy that would create the jobs young Egyptians need. On the contrary he looks set to remain dependent on sources of income derived from Egypt’s natural resources and geostrategic location: Suez Canal revenues, oil, gas and foreign aid. Egypt currently ranks 108 in the UNDP index.

Given their lack of success it is perhaps surprising that the Pakistan and Egyptian armies have remained so powerful. Some argue that this has only been possible thanks to the support the two countries get from power-brokers in Washington, who fear that Islamist governments could jeopardise energy supplies, harm Israel and in other ways damage Western interests. Saudi autocracy has similarly been tolerated because of the West’s dependence on oil; Bahrain’s royals have got away with suppressing the population’s longing for democracy by playing host to the US Fifth Fleet, which guarantees the Persian Gulf trade route; in Algeria in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front was about to win parliamentary elections, there were almost audible sighs of relief in Western capitals at the news that the army was about to intervene; and when Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006 Western governments refused to engage with the organisation. It’s clear that the policy of supporting such secular authoritarian regimes as Pakistan’s and Egypt’s has been underpinned by substantial donations of foreign aid. Christophe Jaffrelot, in The Pakistan Paradox, cites US estimates that Pakistan received $20 billion between 2001 and 2011.* Since many of the more sensitive military-to-military programmes have never been disclosed, the true figure is likely to be significantly higher. Egypt receives in excess of $2 billion a year.

An idea of what Washington hopes to get for its money is conveyed by the transcripts of last year’s hearings on Egypt at the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. The congressmen and women, academics and think-tankers who spoke at the hearings described Washington’s interests in Egypt as follows: keeping the Suez Canal open for global trade and as an avenue between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf that US warships can negotiate without difficulty; maintaining overflight rights and thereby keeping US military bases in the region equipped; slowing the advance of Islamic State in Sinai; counterbalancing Iranian power and protecting Israel by destroying the tunnels that supply Hamas. Promotion of democracy was mentioned but with the rider that it had to be balanced with ‘security’ concerns and the need to keep Islamist governments at bay. Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher described radical Islam as a monstrous threat to Western civilisation and warned that its success in Egypt would be followed by victories in the Gulf and Central Asia, thereby determining ‘the future not only of the Middle East but also the world … There is only one person and one regime and one government that stands in the way of that,’ he concluded, ‘and that is President el-Sisi of Egypt.’ With IS now a force to be reckoned with, even the possibility that Egypt might descend into the sort of chaos we have seen in Libya, Syria and Somalia means that, for US policymakers, human rights considerations will remain secondary. And yet the fear was evident throughout the hearings that by backing Sisi the US may be repeating the mistake it made with Mubarak, driving Egyptian youths towards Islamism, maybe even in its more violent forms.

The idea that the West bears sole responsibility for the tenacity of repressive regimes in Egypt, Pakistan and many other developing countries can be contested. In the first place, the West has not been alone. Moscow backed such tyrants as Hafiz al-Assad in Syria and now backs his son. But it can also be argued that some of the causes of democratic failure can be found within the societies themselves. Take the post-independence trajectories of Pakistan and India. In 1947 the two new countries had much in common. They had shared experiences of colonial rule and won independence at the same time. In each country a single party opposed to British rule took over and was immediately faced with the task of writing a new constitution and uniting a population with a low standard of living. Yet they took very different paths.

Jaffrelot begins his very readable, comprehensive and reliable history of Pakistan with, as he calls it, the ‘mutiny’ of 1857, to which, he argues, Pakistan’s lack of democratic development can be traced. In the 1880s, as the demands for independence in the Indian subcontinent became louder, a fissure opened up between the Hindu and Muslim communities. While Congress represented the aspirations of middle-class Indians seeking a stake in their society, the Muslim League – the party whose efforts would eventually lead to partition – was dominated by big landowners who wanted to hang onto privileges hardwired into their outlook during the Mughal era. The Muslims, as the numerical minority, had always feared even the most tentative British attempt to introduce elections because if it ever came down to votes the Muslims were bound to lose. It was in this context that, in the eyes of many Muslims, Congress emerged less as a movement for independence than as a means of asserting Hindu dominance. Jaffrelot also considers an aspect of the Muslim League’s attitudes that is still apparent in Pakistan today: in their representations to the British authorities, the Muslim leaders presented themselves as potential victims who needed Western protection. Today’s US officials hearing all those requests for increased military aid budgets will recognise the general line of argument.

Jaffrelot identifies three other relevant factors. First, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the first leader of independent Pakistan, was such a towering and imperious figure that he too readily took on the powers of the outgoing governor general, Lord Mountbatten. But political arrangements that made sense in a colony were unsuited to a newly independent nation with democratic aspirations, and the development of alternative centres of power was hampered. Second, because Pakistanis genuinely feared that India would try to reverse partition there was an urgent need to create a new army. As a result the military, from the outset, absorbed more than half of all public expenditure. Third, given the ethnic make-up of the new country, achieving national unity was always going to be tough.

Elsewhere, Jaffrelot puts forward one further explanation for the failure of democracy in Pakistan: namely that in recent years especially, civilians have become allied to, or even part of, the military establishment. This reading of civilian-military relations is controversial. While each military regime has been able to attract enough civilian politicians to provide it with a democratic veneer, the two main political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), have become ever more determined to resist military intervention in politics. Nawaz Sharif may have started out as a creature of the military but he is now a determined opponent of the armed forces, resentful of the way they have repeatedly removed him from power. Today the PML (N) makes common cause with the PPP: they protect one another’s corruption rackets but they also oppose the military together.

Also questionable is Jaffrelot’s argument that Pakistan has so much democratic resilience that, after about a decade of military government, public opinion and street protests have forced successive regimes to make concessions. Musharraf’s regime, it’s true, was weakened in that way, but the same can’t be said of Ayub Khan’s or Yahya Khan’s or Zia-ul-Haq’s, all of whom lost power for very different reasons: Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan lost elite support after losing wars, and Zia was assassinated, quite possibly by military colleagues. But these challenges to some of Jaffrelot’s claims shouldn’t obscure his general point: that the origins of authoritarianism in Pakistan – and of democratic development in India – lie in the particular historical circumstances of pre-independence South Asia.

Similar arguments​ can be made about the emergence of military-dominated postcolonial states in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Hafiz al-Assad were, like Nasser, military officers responding to the particular circumstances in their region – including the abundance of oil and gas resources and the enduring geostrategic reverberations arising from the creation of Israel. In Egypt’s case, the British never truly let go even after independence, and by the time of the Second World War they had a strong interest in controlling Egyptian politics so as to suppress any pro-German sympathies in the country and to maintain control over the Suez Canal. By consistently manipulating and, at times, humiliating Egypt’s politicians, the British drained them of legitimacy. As the credibility of the liberals diminished, so support for the Muslim Brotherhood grew. And fear of the Brotherhood has been a key factor in the military’s refusal to give up power.

External support for repressive regimes and the particular historical circumstances in different societies are not mutually exclusive explanations for the durability of some of those regimes, nor are they sufficient explanations. Especially since 9/11, people have argued that Islam is the problem. Yet with the exception of Israel, the Middle Eastern countries closest to delivering electoral democracy are Turkey and Iran, both of which have Islamists in power. In Turkey – as in Indonesia – the army has had to cede ground to civilian leaders. That Erdoğan is now aping the repressive practices of some of the military governments that preceded him says more about the ingrained authoritarianism of Turkey’s governing structures than it does about his Islamism. Similarly in Egypt many people pressed for the downfall of Mohamed Morsi not just because they feared his religious agenda but because, in line with previous secular leaders, he tried to remove checks on his power. As for Tunisia, its secularists have if anything shown less commitment to democratic values than the Islamists who sacrificed their 2011 election victory in order to allow new parliamentary and presidential elections to go ahead. Rashid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, always said that while he wanted an Islamic government he would try to bring it about only by persuasion. He has been as good as his word. Secularists, by contrast, have failed to deliver democracy not only in Pakistan and Egypt but also in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya. And, even if many Muslim majority countries have indeed suffered repressive military governments, so have many non-Muslim majority countries, as many Africans and South Americans know.

Assessments of the role of Islamism in constraining democratic development have been confused by the claims of liberals in Pakistan and Egypt that their armies have shadowy alliances with religious extremists. The mosque and the military work together, it’s said; and for a decade in Pakistan that was undoubtedly true. General Zia was an unabashed Islamist who created a sharia court, introduced Islamic punishments, appointed Islamists to influential bureaucratic posts, celebrated violent jihad, encouraged the growth of madrasas and introduced highly intolerant, religious content into the school curriculum. But Zia was the exception. That’s not to say that there are no Islamists in military uniform today. In line with global trends, Islamism is gaining ground among the Pakistani middle classes, which provide many military recruits. But they remain a minority and Musharraf’s policy of denying promotion to Islamists means that, for some years to come, secular officers will have disproportionate influence. The views on religion expressed in the essays by General Ayub Khan and General Sisi are a better reflection of majority military opinion. Sisi’s ‘Democracy in the Middle East’ came into the public domain when a conservative pressure group in the US, Judicial Watch, obtained a copy through Freedom of Information legislation. Judicial Watch believed the document revealed the general to be a ‘radical militant’ who wanted to combine Islamism with militarism and to return Egypt to ‘the Muhammad days’. This assertion rested chiefly on a passage in which Sisi wrote that democracy in the Middle East should take into account the people’s attachment to the ideal form of government that existed at the time of Muhammad, the first caliphate. Just as Americans aim for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Sisi argued, so Muslims hope that ‘the earliest form of El Kafala [sic] is re-established.’

People familiar with the tangled relationship between Washington and Cairo read Sisi’s intentions rather differently, believing instead that he was doing what Egyptian generals do best: pitching for more aid by suggesting that only the army could hold at bay the population’s desire to create an Islamic state. Sisi’s performance in office confirms the view that, far from being an Islamist, he is in fact a conventional, conservative, authoritarian ruler determined to resist any challenge to military power. He has overthrown a democratically elected government and presides over a deeply flawed judicial system that has sentenced many of the country’s Islamist leaders to death. Liberals have been imprisoned and a cult of personality has begun. As for his views on the caliphate, now that he can see one established not far from his borders, he has responded with unrestrained hostility.

Perhaps because it was written before the global Islamist revival, Ayub Khan’s ‘A Short Appreciation of Present and Future Problems of Pakistan’ barely mentions religion. In the opening paragraph Ayub Khan wrote that ‘the ultimate aim of Pakistan must be to become a sound, a solid and cohesive nation.’ On the place of Islam in the Pakistan state – about which debate had been raging ever since 1947 – Ayub Khan made this dismissive observation:

Everybody said we should have an Islamic democracy without ever defining what it was … Would it therefore not be correct to say that any variety of democracy when worked in the spirit of the Quran can be called an Islamic democracy? We shall perhaps do better and avoid many pitfalls if we accept this concept.

Against this background of suspicion towards Islamism, both armies have made short-term, pragmatic deals with religious extremists. In Pakistan the military has worked with jihadists to help achieve a variety of policy objectives. To win control of Kashmir, it armed and financed a series of militant outfits, from al-Badr to Lashkar-e-Taiba. To assert influence in Afghanistan it is still providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban leadership and the Haqqani Network. There is also some evidence that the deep state, considering Benazir Bhutto unreliable on the nuclear issue, covered up the Taliban’s role in her murder. The role of the Pakistani state in creating and supporting these groups can give the impression that the army is itself Islamist in outlook. In fact the explanation has less to do with military religiosity than with an overbearing arrogance that leads military men to believe that they will always have the ability to manipulate violent jihadis. Pakistani liberals and various Westerners have long warned the Pakistani military about blowback and as the soldiers now fighting in North Waziristan know all too well, the warnings were justified.

It has been much the same story in Egypt. For all the real antagonism between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood they have, at times, done deals. After the Free Officers’ coup of 1952 the new military leadership, thinking it might be able to co-opt the Brotherhood and tap into its strand of anti-European and anti-imperialist thinking, gave the organisation two ministries. But the Brotherhood’s popularity, coupled with its rigid insistence on the introduction of Islamic law, meant that the military came to perceive it as a threat. In 1954 the army arrested senior Brotherhood leaders and banned the organisation. Much the same happened under both Sadat and Mubarak. When Sadat came to power and needed a force to oppose Nasserite leftists he released jailed Brotherhood activists, allowed the organisation’s banned journals to resume publication and even encouraged it to campaign on university campuses. But in the period immediately before his assassination he was imprisoning Brotherhood leaders who he believed were trying to overthrow him. Mubarak repeated the pattern: for three decades he alternated between suppressing the Brotherhood and tolerating it – for instance by allowing its leaders to stand for the People’s Assembly under different party labels.

The attempts by the military leaderships in Egypt and Pakistan to manipulate religious power continue even now. The Egyptian military is now in open confrontation with both Islamic State and the Brotherhood, but it has also been securing its flank by reaching an understanding with some of the Salafist groups, an essential element of its counter-jihadist strategy. The Egyptian Salafis have traditionally steered clear of politics but during the Arab Spring a significant number reluctantly decided to take part in the elections. It is one thing to take on both Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood, but to confront the Salafis as well would be to set the regime against a clear numerical majority of the Egyptian population.

These pragmatic deals give a misleading impression of the true relationship between the military and the mullahs. After all, in both countries the armies are now fighting jihadis and the Pakistan army has made significant gains against the Pakistan Taliban. Brutal army offensives in the tribal areas – backed by the US drone campaign – mean that for most Pakistanis the country is safer today than it has been for some years. In 2009 there were 91 suicide attacks, in which 1121 people were killed. In 2015 there were 22 suicide attacks, which killed 157. Pakistan’s generals boast that they have run the world’s most successful ground campaign against violent jihadis since 9/11. And, with the possible exception of the French operation in northern Mali, they may well be right. In Egypt, by contrast, the number of jihadist attacks is still rising sharply. In 2015 fatal attacks were more widespread and deadly than ever before and included co-ordinated, simultaneous assaults on army checkpoints and targeted assassinations in Cairo. The Egyptian military, somewhat like Pakistan’s in the period between 2007 and 2010, is proving to be slow to confront the jihadists effectively. But if Egypt continues to follow the same path as Pakistan, then Sisi’s forces should become increasingly capable of containing the threat of the caliphate’s spread to Egypt.

Reluctant to rely on Islamism, the Egyptian and Pakistani armies have both tried to find an alternative ideology to justify their being in power. Socialism and Arab nationalism in Egypt, and some vague notion of corporatist competence in Pakistan (Musharraf even gave himself the title of CEO), have failed in that role. Both militaries have now settled on a narrow nationalism that accepts the borders bequeathed by the departing colonial powers. Appeals to the flag give the armies a genuine support base; they also provide a clear mark of distinction from the religious organisations. From the very start, when the idea of Pakistan was just a dream, many Islamists in South Asia preferred to think in terms of an internationalist community of believers rather than territorially distinct Islamic nation-states. Many Islamist clerics opposed Pakistan’s creation on the grounds that Islam should not be in the business of creating national boundaries. Given Egypt’s antiquity such issues were never as acute there, but the Brotherhood always had an internationalist outlook and has fellow movements all over the world. As for Islamic State, even if its aim of a global caliphate is in the realms of fantasy, its record of destroying the Iraqi-Syrian border has posed a significant challenge to the existing international order.

At first blush, then, nationalism – or as they would put it, patriotism – would seem to provide the militaries with a credible alternative ideology. But there is a problem. Both armies have failed to advance their national causes. In 1948, while the Indians and Israelis were securing their national foundations with military victories, the Pakistanis and Egyptians were explaining away humiliating defeats in Kashmir and Palestine. It was the start of a trend. In 1971 Pakistanis faced rupture as Bangladesh was created, and in 1973 Egyptians had to be satisfied with the ‘victory’ of winning back some of the land lost in 1967. Aspirations held at the time of decolonisation are today more distant than ever: Cairo now accepts Israel’s existence and Rawalpindi knows that its long campaign to win control of Kashmir isn’t going anywhere.

The violent jihadists, meanwhile, have had clear objectives and a plan to match. The Pakistan Taliban is fighting for an Islamic state, first in Pakistan and then beyond. True, there are internal divisions: some Taliban groups, for example, are primarily interested in the idea of sharia law; others focus on sectarian issues. Despite these internal challenges, however, potential Taliban recruits know the broad thrust of the movement’s position: it is fighting for a Sunni theocracy run from Islamabad. Similarly, in Egypt both the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State are sure of their ideological foundations. The Brotherhood has for many decades had a simple slogan: ‘Islam is the solution.’ Behind it there have been long-running disputes between those who favour parliamentary politics and those willing to use violence. Like any other large political organisation, the Brotherhood has various tendencies. After 9/11 those Brothers who favoured peaceful tactics were in the ascendant: Sisi’s brutal repression is likely to drive the organisation to a greater violence. Islamic State, meanwhile, not only relies on violence but also advances an apocalyptic, end-of-days vision of Islam that foresees a final confrontation between Islam and ‘Rome’ in the northern Syrian village of Dabiq. It is a rich seam to exploit: a 2012 Pew poll found that in nine out of 23 Muslim-majority states, more than 50 per cent of people expected to see the appearance of the Mahdi in their lifetime.

In​ 1968 Samuel Huntington argued that the weak political institutions of many postcolonial countries would be unable to cope with the pace of social and economic change in the developing world. Trends such as urbanisation and industrialisation carried the risk of ethnic and class conflict, mob violence, insurgencies and corruption. US aid officials assumed that economic growth would lead to democratisation, when they should have been paying more attention to fostering political stability. It was partly, he argued, a question of sequencing. While Britain succeeded in the industrial revolution by creating jobs first and educating people later, some postcolonial states were making the mistake of educating people first and then subsequently failing to find them jobs. Huntingdon worried that newly educated citizens would want to participate in institutions that weren’t ready to cope with them. But if a transitional, authoritarian leader could prevent political upheavals during the period of early modernisation, the path to success would be clearer. During this phase between a stable traditional society and a stable modern one, he argued, the extent to which a government was democratic or not was of limited importance. The crucial point was that it should not be overthrown. Huntington didn’t use the phrase ‘benevolent dictator’ but what he proposed amounted to just that – at least for a transitional period. In particular he singled out Ayub Khan for praise. ‘More than any other political leader in a modernising country after World War Two,’ Huntington wrote, ‘Ayub Khan came close to filling the role of a Solon or Lycurgus, or “Great Legislator” of the Platonic or Rousseauian model.’ Were Huntington alive today he might perhaps acknowledge that things did not work out as he foresaw. Far from creating the conditions for stable democracy, the authoritarianism he recommended simply produced more authoritarianism.

The failure of authoritarian governments has left the West confused. After years of support for Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s successive election victories after the Arab Spring left the West in search of a consistent argument. The contradictions are now most pressing in Syria, where Western governments are still calling for Assad’s downfall yet afraid of what his departure might bring. Most Western governments are now not only supportive of Sisi but also adjusting to the possibility of having to back Assad in Syria. Many quietly wish for similar authoritarian figures in Iraq, Libya and Somalia. The idea that, one day, Western-minded liberals might govern these countries has been shattered both by the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the failure of the Arab Spring. Various recent elections in Egypt suggest liberal politicians the West would be comfortable with are backed by less than 10 per cent of the electorate. And even if many Pakistanis vote for secular parties, the story there is much the same. In both countries many liberals, aware of their numerical weakness, have such a fear of what Islamist governments would mean for their way of life that given the choice they would opt for military regimes, however repressive. For this reason the West can no longer argue with any conviction that it wants democracy in the Middle East and South Asia. It is a significant change. For years Washington simultaneously supported authoritarian regimes and pressed them to introduce democratic reforms. It was always a contradictory stance but today it lacks credibility altogether. What would be the point in putting pressure on Sisi to be more democratic when his political purpose has been to overturn the Muslim Brotherhood’s repeated election victories? Obama’s decision to abandon the democratic demands of the Arab Spring protesters may, in retrospect, turn out to be one of the most significant foreign policy decisions of his presidency. There was a moment when it would have been possible to put forward a coherent and consistent vision of where the Middle East might go, but it passed, and as a result it is increasingly difficult for the West to articulate a good counter-argument to Islamic State. It can condemn its brutality but what is it offering in its place? If the answer is the military repression and economic stagnation that come with Sisi and his kind, then many in the Middle East and South Asia will be looking elsewhere.

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