Youssef Cherif on Unchecked Authoritarianism and MENA’s Next Generation
Q: What will be the number one challenge for the MENA region to watch in 2018?
Youssef: Unchecked authoritarianism emerged as the strongest alternative to Islamism(s) in the MENA region. Dictatorial regimes that survived the Arab Spring or were recreated in its aftermath are strengthening their grip on their populations and encouraging similar systems to emerge in their neighborhood. They are spearheading different public relations (propaganda) campaigns that are felt from Mauritania to Bahrain and which put political Islam, democracy, and terrorism in the same bag. These regimes, on the contrary to most pre-2011 dictatorships, seem uninterested to keep even a façade respect of human rights, and the international community does not seem to have much leverage on them.
But while less visible than other red signals such as extremism or migration, the rise of unchecked authoritarianism, which will be consolidated in 2018, will have long and enduring consequences. The consolidated authoritarian regimes are led and thought by mostly men in their 50s and 60s, hence disconnected from the reality lived by their younger citizens. Moreover, the tens of millions of citizens who are facing state apparatuses’ brutality, and who are indoctrinated by nationalist, almost fascist propaganda, based on exclusion, suspicion, and violence, will be tomorrow’s problems — both for their rulers and for their (northern) neighbors.
Q: What is the outlook for the engagement of the United States and Europe with the MENA region?
Youssef: The United States, under the Trump administration, does not seem to care about the issues of democracy, human rights, and rule of law, on the contrary. In the EU, as public opinion is shifting toward the right, governments are looking for southern partners who can deliver quickly in terms of fighting terrorism and stopping corruption. Emerging Arab democracies, when they exist, take time to become sustainable and look therefore less appealing.
Furthermore, in Washington as in most European capitals, the need to find new markets has pushed for a less moralistic approach to international relations, where business deals are signed almost without conditions. Western capitals are consequently accepting, legitimizing, and encouraging unchecked authoritarian regimes in MENA, who in turn are willing to become their gate keepers and passive business partners, in a pre-2011 scenario with less emphasis on gradual democratization.
Q: What advice would you give to European and/ or U.S. policy planners dealing with the MENA region?
Youssef: There is a need to work with the younger generations of the MENA region. They are left outside of the political and economic circles, but sooner or later they will join. U.S./EU policymakers should increase scholarships for students, especially those under 30 years old, and make sure to disseminate them through fair and transparent outlets, for example online applications without going by MENA official structures. These will be tomorrow’s leaders.
On the other hand, American and European policymakers should pressure their rich Arab Gulf allies who have been intervening in most Arab countries, often through soft power, but sometimes militarily. Some Gulf countries have been staunch advocates of the return of authoritarianism in the region, so the less they are involved the more democracy can find ways to blossom.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.