Why dictators hold elections: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bashar al-Assad and the façade of legitimacy

It is easy to be cynical about candidates winning 80 per cent of the vote but for some Middle East regimes the appearance of democracy is enough to secure the covert backing of Western powers

 

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Why do dictators love elections? It’s an old question in the Middle East, but it needs answering yet again when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is going to win the Egyptian presidential election this month and when President Bashar al-Assad is going to be re-elected in Syria next month. Will they get 90 per cent of the vote, or will they keep safely in the 80s like sick old Abdelaziz Bouteflika who picked up a measly 81.5 per cent in Algeria?

Surely, Sisi will have to be awarded at least 82 per cent in order to show that he is no Bouteflika. As for Assad, the high 90s might be predicted although – given the 2.5 million Syrian refugees now living outside the country – that might be pushing credibility a bit far. Yet he’s got only two competitors, both MPs in the current parliament, and who really expects Assad family rule to end in June after 44 years? So no cliffhangers in Cairo or Damascus.

The truth, of course, is that Sisi and Assad are not standing because they need electoral support. Egypt’s former field marshal – he officially left the army in order to stand in elections at the end of this month – needs to protect the Egyptian military’s huge economic empire and the investment of his fellow generals in energy, bottled water companies, real estate, shopping malls and furniture stores.

That’s why Sisi believes it would be “inappropriate” for civilians to have control over the army’s budget – and why he wants a new clause in the Egyptian constitution to that effect.

Assad, on the other hand, wants to ensure that the Geneva “peace” talks – supposedly aimed at the creation of a “transitional” government in Damascus – are dead in the water. If he is re-elected President next month – and there really is no “if” about it – how can a “transitional” government be created? And since new electoral laws in Syria state that presidential candidates have to have lived in Syria for 10 years prior to the election, none of Assad’s external critics can stand. So no surprises if 90 per cent becomes flavour of the day.

After all, Assad’s forces are winning the civil war in Syria in which perhaps 150,000 men, women and children have died – although that statistic might be as dodgy as election results. Cynicism usually accompanies Arab elections – but it’s always possible to underestimate the popularity of the patriarchal figures who come to power. Millions of Egyptians do support Sisi and equally supported his military coup against the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, whose own 51.7 per cent election victory was – by dictator standards – pretty pathetic.

Sisi has also effectively ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belonged, is now banned in Egypt as a “terrorist organisation”. In fact, both Sisi and Assad claim they are – like Bush, Blair and other worthy historical figures from our recent past – fighting “a war on terror”.

Thus do our own Western fantasies come to the aid of Middle Eastern regimes. For it’s not by chance that Tony Blair himself – still chuntering away on the dangers of Islamist “fundamentalism” – has given his wholehearted support to Sisi’s coup and future presidency, and even shown mild enthusiasm for Assad who might be permitted to remain in power during “some kind of peaceful transition to a new constitution”. To have Blair’s backing might be regarded as a grave political setback for any politician – but not, perhaps, in parts of the Arab world.

Nor must we forget our own little hypocrisies. John Kerry, whose condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is matched only by silence in the face of Israel’s annexation of Golan and appropriation of stolen land, believes it is farcical for Assad to hold an election during a war – but essential that Ukraine holds elections when its eastern cities have fallen totally outside government control. And an American President who could congratulate President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on his last fraudulent election victory can hardly fail to give his good wishes to Sisi once he wins in Egypt – a message that will, be sure, arrive wrapped up in much enthusiasm for Sisi’s role in “transitioning” his country back to “democracy”.

Sisi, and perhaps Assad too, are assured of our covert Western support if they protect – or do not challenge – Israeli power. Which is one reason why our diplomats are talking about the possible “necessity” of Assad’s continued presidency. The fact that Sisi has morphed the Brotherhood into al-Qa’ida and “terror” – without the slightest evidence – has gone unchallenged in the West.

Nor has anyone been complaining when the diplomats of Beirut slip across to Damascus – quietly, of course – in the hope of renewing old friendships with Assad’s regime. It’s worth remembering that not so long ago, this same regime was receiving “renditioned” prisoners for the Americans and subjecting them to a bit of rough stuff in the cells while interrogating them about their anti-American “terrorism”. Also worth recalling, perhaps, are the congratulations Sisi received after staging his coup against Morsi last year – which arrived post-haste from Assad himself.

Eighty-two per cent for Sisi, 90 per cent for Assad – that’s to cut out and keep. And then we’ll see how the “real” figures match up.

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