Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

In the Arab world, sham elections still rule the day

Many countries in the region are democracie­s in name only

- By Hilal Khashan

After being ruled by various empires for millennia, Arab societies missed out on the social and technologi­cal movements that swept through Europe and transforme­d European societies into modern democracie­s. Arab societies were subjugated by their colonial rulers and missed the opportunit­y to bring Islam into the modern age. They remained captives of the Quranic text, which required Muslims to “Obey God and obey the Messenger [the Prophet Muhammad] and those in authority.” Islam forbade its followers from rebelling against their rulers except under two conditions: if a ruler was guilty of infidelity or was considered an unjust leader. The expectatio­n of complete obedience blunted efforts to develop democratic institutio­ns, leading to a system of perpetual instabilit­y and uncertaint­y.

The Arab state system emerged gradually after the First World War. Prior to the 1950s, a decade in which many military coups were carried out across the developing world, political systems in the region allowed for pluralism and periodic elections – especially in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. But the ruling elites focused on clinging to power instead of building a civil state, leading to the emergence of monarchies (as in Egypt and Iraq) and upper-class aristocrac­ies (as in Syria). These regimes were often overthrown by their own militaries – whose rank and file came from lower social classes – as a direct result of their unwillingn­ess to build solid democratic foundation­s and their determinat­ion to maintain power at any cost.

Guise of Democracy

Prominent 20th-century Arab poet Ahmad Shawqi argued that nothing could stop ambitious people from achieving success if they were bold enough – a statement that rings true for Arab regimes past and present. Arab upper and middle classes viewed military service with disdain, making it easy for officers of humble origins who held grudges against the elite to seize power.

In Egypt, former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s father was a postman, and current President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s father owned a small shop in a bazaar in Cairo. Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali failed to earn a certificat­e in his vocational school studies and enlisted in the military. The fathers of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Algerian President Houari Boumediene were poor peasants, while Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was a shepherd in his youth.

Once in office, these leaders rigged elections to acquire popular legitimacy and claim that they had the population’s full support. They abhorred competitiv­e elections, administer­ing them as ratificati­ons of their presidenti­al sponsorshi­p by members of the parliament.

In 1952, a group of Egyptian army officers overthrew the monarchy and appointed Maj. Gen. Mohammad Naguib to the presidency. Two years later, Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew him and declared himself prime minister, before assuming the presidency in 1956. He won a new term in office in the 1965 plebiscite, receiving 99.99 percent of the vote with a 98 percent turnout.

When Nasser died in 1970, his vice president, Anwar Sadat, succeeded him. He called a referendum to confirm his candidacy, receiving 90 percent support in a vote that garnered a 90 percent turnout. Sadat apologized to the Egyptian people for not winning their unanimous support and promised to do better in the future. In the 1976 referendum, 81 percent of eligible voters participat­ed and nearly 99 percent supported Sadat.

In the 1987 elections, President Hosni

Mubarak received the support of 89 percent of the voters. In the 2005 elections, Mubarak was challenged by opposition leader Ayman Nour, who was soon arrested on bogus charges and evicted from political life.

A year after he overthrew democratic­ally elected Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi in 2013, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who was defense minister at the time, ran for president while wearing a full military uniform.

He won the election, described by the Anti-Coup Alliance – a coalition of 12 parties, 24 profession­al associatio­ns and army veterans – as a farce. According to exit polls, he received 97 percent of the vote, in an election with a 47 percent turnout.

In 2018, el-Sissi received the same percentage of votes. The parliament extended his term in office until 2024, with the approval of 96 percent of lawmakers, and announced that he could run for a third term. El-Sissi’s defense minister, Sami Anan, decided to run against him in the 2018 vote but was arrested on the grounds that he violated the military establishm­ent’s regulation­s.

El-Sissi feared Anan’s influence in the military and decided to remove him from elSissi’s path to reelection.

In Yemen, the presidenti­al council elected Ali Abdullah Saleh unanimousl­y to the presidency in 1978. His first move as president was to execute 30 people accused of attempting to overthrow him. In 1999, he won more than 92 percent of the vote in an election with a 67 percent turnout. In 2005, he repeatedly said he wouldn’t seek another term but, one year later, said he intended to run again because it was the will of the people.

In Syria, a spate of military coups was carried out between 1949 and 1970, leading to frequent regime changes. In 1949, Brig. Gen. Husni Zaim brought down the government of President Shukri Quwatli. After conducting a sham referendum in which he received 99 percent support, he installed himself as president.

Similar coups occurred in Libya, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen, eventually leading to a collapse of their political systems and triggering bloody civil wars.

In Syria’s 1971 presidenti­al elections, 95 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to official statistics, and Hafez Assad received more than 99 percent of the vote. In Iraq, after overthrowi­ng President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr in 1979, Saddam Hussein executed dozens of his comrades in the Baath Party in what was known as the alKhold massacre. A few days later, he eliminated hundreds of senior party officials to become Iraq’s absolute leader. The last presidenti­al plebiscite conducted during Saddam’s presidency in 2002 garnered 100 percent voter turnout.

The fact that not even a single dissenting vote was registered out of more than 11 million counted cast serious doubt over the legality of the election. It also revealed the importance of consensus and conformity in Arab politics.

The situation is somewhat different for North African states, whose complex politics and diversity of opposition groups compel ruling elites to avoid the pretense of consensus. For example, Algeria’s 2020 constituti­on was approved by about 67 percent of voters in a referendum that had a 23 percent turnout.

In Tunisia, President Kais Saied called a referendum in 2022 on a new constituti­on. Exit polls showed an overwhelmi­ng approval rate of 94.6 percent, but a large boycott resulted in just 30 percent participat­ion. There are two exceptions to the rule, however.

Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who led the country’s independen­ce from France in 1956, was reelected in 1964 with 99.8 percent of the vote and a 97 percent turnout. Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who overthrew Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, opened the door to competitio­n for the presidency in the 2009 elections. He won about 90 percent of the vote, which had close to 90 percent turnout, according to the supervisin­g committee.

Grim Outlook

For decades, Arab regimes have failed to instill democratic values and eschew political violence. Elections in Arab countries are demonstrat­ions of political theater, as ruling regimes reject peaceful transfers of power and block opponents from challengin­g incumbent candidates. Those who hold official positions think they are entitled to keep them for life.

Arab military rulers control their population­s through intimidati­on, the media and the security apparatus. The measures applied by Hafez Assad are a prime example: Syrian intelligen­ce made sure that daily editorials in all newspapers and magazines were about Assad.

On one occasion, intel agents monitoring a seminar arrested a government employee accused of not applauding Assad’s name enthusiast­ically enough. Syrians even avoided using newspapers as table covers, fearing they could be punished if Assad’s picture was placed under their food.

In Egypt, pro-Sissi media insist that no one outside the armed forces is qualified to take over as president, hinting that he will not be replaced. Unlike Nasser, who appointed eight vice presidents during his time in office, and Sadat, who had two, Mubarak refused to appoint a vice president throughout his 30-year rule, saying he would designate a person to the post only when he found a qualified individual. The uprising forced him to nominate someone just two weeks before his ouster in 2011.

Political corruption remains a critical barrier to change due to the absence of transparen­cy and accountabi­lity and efforts by bureaucrat­s and politician­s to misappropr­iate public funds. Anti-corruption efforts are disingenuo­us, as laws are enacted but rarely implemente­d.

It has become clear that establishi­ng a democracy is virtually impossible. Military regimes destroyed nascent civil societies and blocked the adoption of a social contract regulating the relationsh­ip between the state and citizens.

Without the political will to combat corruption in the public sector, countries in the region will continue to ignore the political rights of their people.

The Arab region is witnessing systematic government repression of citizens who express their opinions, demonstrat­e or form civil society groups. Checks and balances remain fragile, as the system is incapable of addressing authoritar­ian tendencies.

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