Strongman politics may be most practical option in wake of chaos

By Shu Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2014-6-22 18:58:01

Strongman politics is not a new term. The Middle East, Africa and South America were long a breeding ground for strongman politics before the Arab Spring. Especially in the Middle East, leaders with military backgrounds, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, ruled the countries within the region for decades.

Since the Middle East upheavals began, these strongmen have fallen one after another. After the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, scholars exclaimed that strongman politics was gone.

Recently, an article on strongman politics published by The Guardian on June 8 appeals that the world should beware of the return of "strongmen" world leaders, saying that "Strongman politics is both contagious and increasingly back in fashion across the Middle East, where the democratic promise of the Arab Spring revolts has mostly turned to dust and tears."

However, it is too early to say that strongman politics has returned. In the article, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's victory with 96.91 percentage of votes obtained in Egyptian election has been viewed as a strong evidence to prove the return of strongman politics. But in fact, even if Sisi is a 100 percent Mubarak-type figure, Egypt cannot go back to the strongman period of the Mubarak era.

The fall of Mubarak has already sent a message that ordinary people in Egypt have experience in overthrowing dictators. Since the upheaval, economic growth in Egypt has fallen from more than 5 percent in 2010 to as low as 1.8 percent.

Both commodity prices and the unemployment rate have increased a lot. If Sisi's policies cannot reverse the situation, his military background will not help in maintaining his rule.

Coupled with the continued clout of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is unlikely for strongman politics to return to Egypt, not to mention other Middle Eastern countries where the conditions are more unstable than Egypt.

Besides, even if strongman politics really returns to the Middle East, it remains unknown whether its influence will be more positive or negative.

It's true that strongman politics can easily lead to the privatization of public power and the prevalence of corruption. Under the absolute rule of strongmen, critical voices may be suppressed and supervision of power become just a decoration.

Nonetheless, strongman politics also has some advantages in dealing with political turbulence and integrating economic resources, which is strongly needed in many Middle Eastern countries.

Given the economic stagnation and long-term instability, authoritative and resolute pushing hands are required to change the status quo.

Of course, due to its institutional defects, strongman politics is not a healthy political form. But it represents a necessary step for many Middle Eastern countries, because it could provide them with a vital public product, political order.

In cases where the region is in the shadow of the rule of the jungle, strongman politics could become a solution. Hence, we cannot simply judge them by democratic standards.

Therefore, it doesn't matter whether the region has returned to strongman politics or whether it is good in the abstract or not. What really matters is whether the political form of Middle Eastern countries are in keeping with the practical needs of the region.

Instead of the return of strongman politics, what we should really beware are the labels that the world imposes on the Middle Eastern politics.

The West has been accustomed to asking for a "democratic" Middle East, guarding against an "Islamized" Middle East and criticizing the "strongmen" Middle East, ignoring that the politics in the Middle East has its own development track based on its own historical and cultural background.

Situational changes in the Middle East in recent years have already proved that forcible Western intervention in regional transformation always leads to counterproductive consequence. So rather than imposing new labels on the region, the best way to contribute to the political development of the Middle East is to let it take its own course.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Middle East Studies, Shanghai International Studies University.

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