By Brynjar Lia, professor of Middle East Studies at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages.
Over the past few years, nostalgia for Arab dictatorships has become increasingly visible in both Arab and European political discourse. It is not difficult to see why. The optimism generated by the Arab Spring has been replaced by dark pessimism. The horrendous civil war in Syria and Iraq, the implosion of the Libyan state, the steadily worsening situation in war-ravaged Yemen, and a downward spiral of terroristic violence and extreme government repression in Egypt have created the image of a vicious conflagration consuming the entire region. In addition, the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have scared European political leaders into discussing anti-immigration and antiterrorism measures that would have been unheard of only a few years ago.
Democracy is “Dangerous”
An increasingly common refrain among policymakers and pundits today is that Arab democracy will have to wait. It is argued that strong leaders must bring back the stability that Arab dictators so skillfully provided in the past. The maelstrom of regional instability and mayhem is all a result of the Iraq war, aggressive US-led regime change policies, and naïve support for chaotic and Islamist-infested popular revolts against secular dictators who were – despite their shortcomings – pro-Western “stalwart allies” and “force for stability and good in the region”. Examples are abundant. Shortly after the military coup in Egypt, Financial Times noted that
calling for a restoration of democracy in Egypt now is both unrealistic and, in the short term, dangerous. […] For the moment, the restoration of stability must be a higher priority than a return to the ballot box. Political repression and the denial of freedom are horrible to behold. But civil war is even worse.
Two years later, in September 2015, a prominent American journalist similarly mused “how the refugee crisis is teaching us the value of Hussein, Mubarak, and Gadhafi”.
Rehabilitating the “Mad Dog”.
No one raises an eyebrow any longer when Donald Trumps rants about Arabs and Muslims, but his unusual praise for Qaddafi may come as a surprise: “We would be so much better off if Gaddafi were in charge right now”. More startling, however, was the warm embrace by the other US Republican presidential candidates of the late Libyan dictator. After all, the Republican icon, the late US President Ronald Reagan, made serious attempts to assassinate the dictator whom he famously labelled the “mad dog of the Middle East”.
The nostalgia for Arab autocrats is not simply an Inside the Beltway fad. A yearning for Mubarak’s regime has long been noted in Egypt, and was particularly visible during Mubarak’s second trial in April 2013. Even the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Husayn has evoked some nostalgia among Iraqis who suffer from insecurity and absence of government services. Although Arab commentators have time and again warned against the “misplaced nostalgia” for the region’s dictators, the phenomenon persists, giving credence and authenticity to the “stability, not democracy” mantra among Western pundits and policy makers.
The Stability that Never Really Was
The current nostalgia for deposed Arab dictators betrays a certain degree of amnesia regarding the “stability” of the good old days. Many pundits and politicians seem to have forgotten just how violent Middle Eastern and North African politics have been over the past half century. Let’s for a moment revisit the pre-Arab Spring era of “stability”. For simplicity’s sake we will define stability as low levels of violence and armed conflicts. Typically secondary effects of war such as displacement, underdevelopment, and international terrorism are likely to be lower when stability is high. Importantly, stability should not be equated with “leadership continuity”.
Libya, Algeria and Morocco
Let’s begin with Qaddafi’s Libya. Under his erratic rule, the country was involved in a series of wars with its neighbours, beginning with a brief border war with Egypt in 1977, a series of Libyan armed interventions in Chad between 1978 and 1987, and several other military adventures. In the mid-1990s Qaddafi’s regime faced down an Islamist insurgency in Eastern Libya, using brutal tactics. In June 1996 Qaddafi’s security forces shot and killed some 1,200 prisoners in the Abu Salim detention facility. Qaddafi’s regime is believed to have sponsored the downing of two Western airlines, and one of them, the Lockerbie bombing, still remains the largest terrorist attack on European soil after World War II. Qaddafi financed a broad range of Third World rebel groups and European terrorist outfits, including the IRA, ETA, Action Directe, Red Army, Red Army Faction, and the Abu Nidal Organisation. In October 1986, Libya shipped “10 SAM missiles, and a tonne of Semtex-H plastic explosive” to the IRA. Semtex is far more powerful and effective than a traditional homemade fertilizer bombs, and during the next 25 years the powerful military grade explosives “were found in virtual every bomb” constructed by IRA and its offshoot groups. During the 1980s, Libya also hosted large-scale terrorist training camps where thousands of militants received training, money and weaponry. Qaddafi’s regime also contributed to the regional refugee crisis when he suddenly decided to expel tens of thousands of Palestinian guest workers on short notice in September 1995 in protest against the Oslo Accords. During the mid-2000s, when Qaddafi was still firmly in power, a large number of Libyans travelled from Libya to fight as volunteers with jihadi insurgents in Iraq.
Another illustrative example of “the stability that never was” is neighbouring Algeria. The country was rocked by widespread unrest triggered by falling oil prices in 1988, forcing the military junta to adopt democratic reforms. In 1991, as the Islamist party Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) was posed to win parliamentary elections, the generals seized power, unleashing a protracted and bloody civil war which, by the early 2000s, had been largely contained despite intermittent waves of terrorist attacks and kidnappings of foreigners. During the civil war an estimated 100,000-150,000 people were killed, and a series of terrorist attacks took place in Europe in the mid-1990s as a direct result of the insurgency in Algeria. The Algerian military junta was accused of tolerating and abetting the massacres perpetrated by the jihadi rebels (GIA), apparently in an effort to forestall any possible political compromise with the mainstream FIS party and punish those electoral districts which had voted for the FIS. Violent political unrest has continued to simmer among the country’s Berber minority in Kabylie.
Even the Kingdom of Morocco, a Western favourite for its pro-Western policies and stability, has struggled with internal violence and external wars. The protracted war with the POLISARIO guerrilla movement over Western Sahara territory ended with a UN-monitored ceasefire in 1991, but relations remain tense, especially with Algeria, which supports and hosts POLISARIO and a large number of Sahrawi refugees. The conflict has generated a refugee situation which is among the most protracted worldwide. The era of the former King Hasan (until 1999) has been dubbed the “Années de plomb” (years of lead) in which repression of political opponents was harsh. The Monarchy has faced repeated large-scale waves of unrest and popular revolts, particularly in big cities (Casablanca, Fez, Rabat), demanding more democracy. During the rebellion in the Rif region in northern Morocco in 1958-59, repression was particularly ruthless.
However, in recent years, the Moroccan monarchy has taken serious steps to address the abuses of the past, an unprecedented development in the region. It has also adopted more inclusive government and has invited the Islamist opposition into the government. Under its slogan “stability through reform”, Morocco strives to provide an alternative to the Arab securocratic state model.
Egypt and Syria
Another pro-Western ally, Egypt, has faced repeated waves of protracted violent revolts, especially by militant Islamist groups. Being the most populous Arab country and for many years the largest recipient of US military aid after Israel, Egypt has long caused serious concerns among Western security officials due to fears over the possible consequences of an Iranian-style “Islamic revolution” in the country. Egypt was rocked by a protracted low-intensity conflict starting in the late 1980s and lasting for nearly a decade, culminating in the massacre at Luxor in which 58 foreign tourists were killed. Another new wave of terrorist attacks occurred in Sinai in the mid-2000s.
It is worth noting that the current and hitherto bloodiest insurgency in Egypt escalated only after a new strongman (General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) seized power in a military coup in mid-2013. Furthermore, political unrest and violence in Egypt has not merely been the work of jihadists. In 1986 tens of thousands of Egyptian paramilitary conscripts rioted in protests following rumours that their mandatory service period would be prolonged, causing 107 casualties. In the 1990s there were also a number of local incidents of violent unrest following deaths in custody as a result of police maltreatment and torture.
Nobody needs to be reminded of the present-day instability in Syria, where an Arab dictator still rules the majority of the population after five years of civil war. Long before the Arab spring, the country also witnessed protracted periods of violent disturbances and popular uprising. In the mid-1960s and between 1976 and 1982, the country faced serious political disturbances. From 1976 onwards, the conflict gradually escalated into a full-scale revolt, which was eventually brutally repressed. In February 1982 some 30,000 people were killed in Hama mostly by government forces. Syria also intervened militarily in neighbouring Lebanon, contributing its share to the country’s descent into full-scale civil war between 1975 and 1990. Syria’s military interference began already in 1976 and its policy was characterized by constantly shifting alliances with the overall goal of achieving Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. Its tactical repertoire also included campaigns of political assassination of political opponents in Lebanon. A massive car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 others in February 2005 is widely believed to be the work of Syria. The country also sponsored as a matter of policy a series of insurgent groups operating against other countries, such as the Kurdish PKK guerrilla movement (until 1998), the Palestinian Hamas and a range of other militant Palestinian factions opposed to the PLO. During the mid- and late 2000s, there were also a number of terrorist attacks inside Syria, several of which went largely unreported. At the time of the US invasion of Iraq, Syria sponsored the transit of foreign fighters travelling to Iraq, at one point even organizing their bus transportation in front of the US embassy in Damascus.
Iraq, Yemen and Sudan
Hardly any other Arab state has experienced and caused more violent deaths than Iraq under Saddam Husayn’s reign. Shortly after ascending to power, the Iraqi dictator unleashed a brutal eight-year war with Iran in which he deployed chemical weapons as a matter of routine and during which some 700,000 or more people died. His genocidal war against Kurdish rebels and civilians (the Anfal campaign) in the late 1980s may have killed as many as 180,000. Saddam Husayn’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, his massive suppression of the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq and the Kurdish rebellion in the north killed tens of thousands of people. Like several other Arab regimes, the Iraqi Baathist regime also pursued a policy of hosting terrorist and insurgent groups (such as the anti-Iranian Mojahedin e-Khalq) as an instrument to destabilize enemy states.
Instability in Yemen today is undeniably bad, but the country is probably one of the worst Arab states in terms of endemic civil unrest and absence of government presence and services outside of the capital. The country has experienced series of civil wars in its post-independence history and as a result the country was divided into two separate states until 1990. (North) Yemen’s long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Salih came to power in 1978, and described policy of ruling Yemen “like dancing on the heads of snakes”, that is playing off one opponent against another. Another civil war erupted in mid-1994, causing thousands of casualties. A protracted rebellion among the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia-led movement from northern Yemen, began in 2004 and has continued more or less until the present.
Finally, let us not forget Sudan, the country with the perhaps most lethal and long-lasting civil wars in the Middle East. The first Sudanese civil war (1955-72) began right after independence and was followed by a new phase of conflict starting in 1983 and lasting until the partition of Sudan in 2005, one of the most protracted civil wars in modern history with over one million casualties. Sudan’s current president Omar al-Bashir seized power in a military coup back in 1989 and installed a one-party dictatorship. During the early and mid-1990s the Sudanese regime became notorious for hosting a plethora of terrorist and insurgent outfits, including Osama bin Laden and his nascent al-Qaida organization. At the time Sudan was considered by the United States to be among the world’s most prominent “terrorist sponsors”. Responding to the Darfur Uprising in 2003, the Sudanese government struck back hard unleashing its Janjaweed militia forces. The brutality of that war led the International Criminal Court to charge Sudan’s President with war crimes and three counts of genocide.
The Arab-Israeli conflict
This list of armed conflicts, violent uprisings and unrest in the pre-2011 Middle East could be made much longer if we also included the various Kurdish uprisings in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran since the 1970s, several instances of Shiite uprising in Saudi Arabia, a series of Tuareg rebellions in the Sahel, and the Baluch rebellion in Iran. What is more, we haven’t even come to the so-called “Middle East conflict”, a term which until recently was the standard media phrase for the Arab-Israeli conflict. On average there has been at least one major violent Arab-Israel confrontation for every single decade since Arab independence (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1982-1985, 1987, 2000, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014). Clearly, Israel’s military expansionism and aggressive strike-first military doctrine have played a major role in triggering these conflicts, but wars are by definition not a unilateral game. If the Arab mukhabarat states were essential in providing stability in the region, it is indeed very difficult to explain the persistence and protractedness of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anyone who has studied official regime-sponsored Arab media in the past cannot have missed to notice that anti-Israeli warmongering was a very common staple in the populist propaganda of Arab autocrats.
Conclusion: A dangerous fallacy
The idea that Arab dictators may help secure long-term stability in the Middle East after the “failure” of the Arab Spring is a dangerous fallacy. States ruled by dictators are almost by definition loose cannons on deck. They are unpredictable actors, unchecked by oversight bodies, parliaments and institutions, whose personal whims, paranoia and insanity can cause harm to millions. To secure their power base, authoritarian leaders in the Middle East have always courted some kind of foreign sponsorship, and they have carefully balanced the roles of pyromaniac and fire fighter in order to insert themselves as indispensable interlocutors for the outside world. Like mafia bosses their policy is to create demand for their protection services. The assumption that the rules of the game have somehow changed after the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS and that Arab autocrats have now become our best choice at a time of uncertainty and crisis ignores the lessons of history.
 Interviews in Damascus, Spring 2010.