Spring Stirrings and Misgivings: Of Autocrats and Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa

Lambert here: A very helpful round-up!

By Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua. Originally posted at TomDispatch.

“Al-Shebab,” said my student Jerry early in the fall 2010 semester. “We’re calling our small group al-Shebab. It means ‘The Youth.’” From his name alone, I wouldn’t have guessed his background, but he was proud of his family’s Egyptian roots and had convinced his classmates to give their group an Arabic name.

As usually happens when the semester ends and my dozens of students scatter, Jerry and I lost touch. The following April, however, we ran into each other at a rally organized by students at my university to support the Arab Spring. Like many others around the world, I’d watched transfixed as brave unarmed civilians faced down riot police on the bridges leading to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I’d celebrated on February 11, 2011, when the corrupt and authoritarian Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned as the military took control of that country.

Jerry’s eyes sparkled when he saw me. “Isn’t it amazing?” he shouted. Yes, it was amazing… until it wasn’t.

This spring, eight years later, there has been a new set of popular uprisings in northern Africa, from Algeria to Morocco, to Sudan. Let’s hope they have more lasting success than Egypt’s Arab Spring.

It’s All About the Military

The victory over Hosni Mubarak was indeed amazing, perhaps too amazing to last, since the real arbiter of events in Egypt was then, and continues to be, its military. In the parliamentary elections of November 2011, the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood took almost half that body’s seats. In June 2012, the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, became the country’s first elected president, winning a runoff race with just under 52% of the vote.

That August, Morsi made the move that would eventually doom him, replacing his defense minister with Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He also quickly turned in an increasingly autocratic direction, issuing decrees granting himself more power and proposing a new constitution that would do the same (which was approved by more than 60% of the voters in a low-turnout referendum).

By June 2013, many Egyptians were frustrated both with Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the stagnation of the economy. Once again, millions of people gathered in Cairo, this time to call for his removal, at which point the military pushed him out, installing the head of the constitutional court, Adly Mansour, as interim president. Muslim Brotherhood supporters responded with violent attacks, burning police stations and government buildings. The government repression that followed was fierce enough that, in October 2013, the Obama administration suspended the further transfer of U.S. military equipment to Egypt. Eventually, new elections were held and, in May 2014, Morsi’s Defense Minister, el-Sisi, won the presidency with a suspicious 96.9% of the vote. By then, the Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed and would soon be declared a terrorist organization.

In April of this year, el-Sisi, running essentially unopposed, was reelected. Never one to slight an authoritarian ruler, President Trump immediately called to congratulate him and then invited him to the White House to discuss “robust military, economic, and counterterrorism cooperation” between the two countries. A few weeks later, in a “snap referendum,” the Egyptian constitution was altered to allow el-Sisi to retain the presidency until at least 2030 — essentially, that is, for life. That move also cemented the country’s military, long its dominant economic power, as its sole political power, too.

Trump Goes A-Wooing in the Middle East and North Africa

From Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the American president who “fell in love” with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has rarely met an autocrat he didn’t take to (though his bromance with Kim may finally be souring). So, it’s no surprise that el-Sisi’s trip to Washington was a success and his country is now on course to remain the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. Ninety-four percent of that aid goes to “peace and security” — in other words, to Egypt’s military and police.

Trump is, however, distinctly polyamorous when it comes to Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) autocratic types, as his long-standing love affair with Israel’s recently reelected prime minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, indicates. Given Trump’s own history of racism, Bibi’s embrace of Israel’s 2018 “Nation-State” law undoubtedly only turned up the heat on their relationship. This infamous legislation moves Israel further in the direction of apartheid. It legalizes Jewish-only communities, demotes Arabic from its status as an official language, and states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”

While the world waits less than breathlessly for Jared Kushner’s long-promised Israel-Palestine peace plan, President Trump keeps gift-wrapping pieces of disputed territory and handing them directly to Bibi in his own spontaneous version of an Israel First peace plan. In December 2017 came the announcement of his administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump claimed that “recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would advance the peace process and make a permanent status agreement between the two sides easier.” Maybe he saw this as a move towards peace because it unilaterally took the ultimate status of Jerusalem, one of the pieces in any such plan, off the Israeli-Palestinian playing board.

Next up came the Golan Heights, a slice of territory on Syria’s western border, captured by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War between Israel and Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. In 1981, Israel passed a law annexing the area, an act rejected by the U.N. Security Council, whose resolution stated that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.” As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States joined that unanimous vote. Nonetheless, this spring, just before a very close Israeli election, President Trump reversed longstanding policy and announced his recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Heights. Happy Birthday, Bibi.

In the days before the election, Netanyahu then doubled down on annexation, proclaiming his intention to make Jewish settlements on the West Bank a permanent part of Israel along with the Golan Heights. In so doing, he’ll be fulfilling Ariel Sharon’s decades-old boast about Israel’s intentions for the Palestinians:

“We’ll make a pastrami sandwich out of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”

Meanwhile, Trump seems to have developed a new crush, this time on a Libyan military figure the New York Times calls a “would-be strongman”: 75-year-old self-styled “Field Marshal” Khalifa Hifter. Based in the eastern part of Libya, where he has been aligned with one of that divided land’s several rival governments, Hifter, a former CIA asset, launched an attack on the capital, Tripoli, on April 5th. Though not successful so far, his assault has already caused hundreds of deaths, with more likely to follow.

A Mediterranean port in the northwestern corner of the country, Tripoli houses Libya’s internationally recognized government headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, which doesn’t actually do much governing. Ever since the Obama administration and NATO intervened to topple autocrat Muammar al-Gaddafi, power in Libya has been divided among multiple militias, including Hifter’s military, and Islamist groups like ISIS.

Hours later, however, President Trump personally called Hifter (as National Security Advisor John Bolton had done earlier) and essentially encouraged him to keep up his assault on Tripoli. According to a White House statement:

“The President recognized Field Marshal Hifter’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”

Why is Donald J. Trump supporting a Libyan warlord, even as his move to take Tripoli seems to be failing? Perhaps because Hifter also has the support of Trump’s other MENA buddies, Egypt’s el-Sisi, the Saudi Arabian government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman which only recently executed 37 people (36 beheaded and one crucified), including several who confessed under torture and were minors at the time of their alleged crimes — and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates. Those Arab powers are betting that Hifter can suppress any Libyan version of the Muslim Brotherhood. And there’s one more autocrat backing Hifter, Trump’s old flame Vladimir Putin. Indeed, for once Russia and the United States find themselves on the same side in the U.N. Security Council, where they joined to block a resolution demanding a ceasefire and condemning Hifter’s military moves. Meanwhile, in a gesture of love for the Saudis, Trump vetoed a resolution passed with rare bipartisan congressional support that would have ended U.S. backing for the Kingdom’s brutal war in Yemen.

For all his love of authoritarians, there is, however, one Middle Eastern nation that hasn’t won Trump’s affections: Iran. In May 2018, he pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), an international accord under which Iran had agreed not to develop nuclear weapons. In return, economic sanctions on that country were eased, while it was allowed to resume selling oil on the international market, and regained access to billions of dollars in frozen assets overseas.

The JCPA’s other signatories included Russia, France, Great Britain, and China, along with Germany and the European Union. None of them followed Trump’s lead. Only recently, his administration has threatened sanctions against any country buying oil from Iran after May 1st, a move mainly affecting China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. This attempt to economically starve Iran into submission comes even as his administration declared that country’s Revolutionary Guards a “ foreign terrorist organization.” As the hardliners in both lands face off, further escalation becomes increasingly, and dangerously, likely.

Spring Stirrings

As we brace for a possible future conflict with Iran (what could possibly go wrong?), it’s sometimes easy for those of us who have spent our lives opposing U.S. military actions to forget that Washington isn’t, in fact, behind every world event. Other peoples have their own struggles and their own agency — on display this spring in two MENA countries that have long suffered under corrupt and authoritarian governments: Algeria and Sudan. (And there appear to be stirrings in Morocco, as well.)

Algeria: Every semester I show the students in my Ethics: War, Torture, and Terrorism class The Battle of Algiers. Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film depicts the first urban uprising against French colonial power by Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), brutally suppressed by France’s paratroopers between 1954 and 1957. It contains enough war, torture, and terrorism to fuel a semester’s worth of conversation. Inevitably, students want to know what happened in Algeria after the French were finally driven out in 1962. “That,” I tell them, “is a sad story.”

Indeed it is. After leading Algerians to victory over France, the FLN ruled the country for almost two decades, mostly under military control after a 1965 coup. Following popular uprisings in 1988, a new constitution opened political space for other parties, while reducing the army’s role in government. The most popular of those parties turned out to be the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was devoted to a fundamentalist version of political Islam. When it appeared clear that the FIS would win both local and national elections, the FLN and the military stepped in to prevent it, resulting in a series of coups and an ongoing civil war.

Eventually, a new FLN leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, came to power in 1999 and never left. Earlier this year, he announced through intermediaries — he has not been seen in public since 2014 — that he would seek a fifth term. Evidently suffering from stomach cancer, he had a stroke in 2013 and has been out of the country much of the time since for medical treatment, most recently in Switzerland.

The latest announcement finally provoked a full-scale popular uprising, led by — and this should sound familiar to readers of this piece — al-shebab, the youth, many of whom had known no other president. (“Youth” is attractive, which is probably why a terror group in Somalia has also taken that name.)  In an oil-rich country where a quarter of those under 30 are out of work, the younger generation is fed up with behind-the-scenes military rule, a sick autocrat, and the pervasive corruption that goes with it all. For weeks this spring, Algerians in their millions poured into the streets, demanding that Bouteflika leave office. On April 2nd, facing this massive, determined, non-violent resistance — and with a push from the military — he resigned. Seventy-seven-year-old Abdelkader Bensalah, like Bouteflika a veteran of the war of independence, has replaced him until new elections in July.

The protesters haven’t, however, let up, arguing that Bouteflika may be gone but the power structure that kept him in office — “le pouvoir” — is still running the government. Perhaps as a sop to the movement, on April 22nd, the police detained five of the country’s most powerful businessmen on accusations of corruption. It remains to be seen whether the strength of this new resistance can be converted into a political version of people’s power for the long term.

Sudan: Meanwhile in Sudan, weeks of similarly massive popular uprisings have dislodged another autocrat, forcing that country’s military to remove President Omar al-Bashir. He is now reportedly in prison, while a search of his home turned up bags containing more than $100 million in cash.

As in Algeria, many of the demonstrators are young and in Sudan a majority of them appear to be women. The most organized among them is a group of doctors, other health workers, and lawyers known as the Sudanese Professionals Association. As in Algeria, the key question is whether this movement will be able to hold out against the power of the military until a genuinely civilian government can be installed.

The original Arab Spring — Tunisia possibly excluded — ended in bloodshed and autocratic or military rule. Still, the youth in parts of the region clearly remain both dissatisfied and hopeful enough to take to the streets to try to bring democracy and clean government to their countries.

An American Spring?

Speaking of aging autocrats, we’ve got one of our own in Washington, D.C. So where are the American millions in the streets? Where is our American Spring? Admittedly, we were there when he first took office, but two years of constant outrage seem to have worn us down or out. As a whirlwind tour of the MENA region suggests, the death and destruction Donald Trump has had a hand in producing extends far beyond our own borders. And we can add to the list of horrors perhaps the greatest one of all: his apparent determination to hasten the collapse of civilization by pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords and doubling down on fossil fuels.

And then there’s the question of our own quaint constitution with its attachment to the rule of law. Now that we have the (redacted) Mueller report, isn’t it time for Americans to stand up for democracy and clean government here at home? I can understand Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to begin impeachment proceedings, given the unlikelihood of a conviction by a Republican Senate. But if we don’t want to end up like so many other countries, replacing one autocrat with another, we have to find a way to hold the one we now have accountable for his high crimes and misdemeanors.

Copyright Rebecca Gordon 2019

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carl

    An otherwise informative article marred by the obligatory anti-Trump rhetoric and the call for impeachment.

  2. David

    I honestly can’t work out what this author is trying to say. The article seems mainly an excuse for assaulting Donald Trump, with some not very subtle hints about his sexuality, for supporting “autocrats,” as though the US had never done this before, and as though Trump were somehow responsible for the chaos in the Middle East (and by the way don’t tell Iranians they are from the “Middle East” unless you want to get into a violent argument.)
    The author clearly doesn’t know much about the region. The Battle of Algiers , although a great film and one that makes an honest attempt to be realistic, is not the story of the Algerian War of Independence, and was never intended to be. But if it’s all you’ve seen, you might think the the War was “an urban uprising” between 1954 and 1957, whereas it was a great deal more than that and lasted a lot longer. Nor were the French “driven out” in 1962: they won the war militarily, and it’s questionable whether the FLN would actually have won fair elections. But the political and financial cost of the war was unsustainable, and De Gaulle decided to cut his losses and seek a negotiated solution. These complexities, together with the bitter divisions within the independence movement, the crushing of the internal independence forces by the Army of the Frontiers, and the complicated relationship with the Kabyle, with its own language and culture, help to explain why Algeria is in the mess it is now, and why a major issue is the post-independence mythology erected by the FLN.
    More generally, the article falls into the common western trap of assuming that a leader we’ve heard of, in a country we know little about, is necessarily an “autocrat”. In fact, most such leaders operate in a highly complex environment where they have to play different groups off against each other and set up and service complex patrimonial networks. (A bit like the US Democratic Party, from what I’ve heard). As the author concedes, Bouteflika in Algeria wasn’t an “autocrat”, but originally a consensus figure and more recently effectively a figurehead. He hasn’t been replaced by an “autocrat” and there’s no sign that he will be. Neither Sissi in Egypt nor, for that matter, any of the other leaders mentioned, is or was an “autocrat” in the sense that term is popularly understood. Bashir is a good example. For all that he was allegedly an autocrat, if not a dictator, he was finally pushed out of power and arrested almost overnight. After 35 years of balancing different groups against each other he finally fell off. This article by Alex de Waal, a noted expert on Sudan, will give you some idea of how complex the situation is there.

    1. Olga

      Thanks, David. I was also wondering what exactly the author was trying to say. While the common theme seems to be ‘autocrat,’ as David points out, the term is applied in a rather simplistic way and points to a shallow (cliff notes?) understanding of the specific countries. (As a detour – maybe the last true autocrat – at least in Europe – was Louis XIV, and that was a long time ago.)
      In addition, calling Putin an autocrat is plain silly, and points to a serious lack of knowledge of today’s Russia (such lack might not matter too much, when speaking of smaller countries – although any teacher should strive to have full facts, or refrain from the topic – but when it comes to nuclear powers, it can have disastrous consequences). And placing Putin’s name in the same line with Bolsonaro’s defies all logic.
      As David points out, each of the mentioned ‘autocrats’ operates in a highly complex environment, and warrants an individual (an lengthy) analysis. Linking them all via some stereotype does not promote deep understanding/education for the students and does no favours even to a casual reader.

    2. pjay

      Yes. A very muddled discussion, for all the reasons you give and more. Regardless of whether the author’s heart is in the right place, this level of discussion does little to help readers understand what is going on. In addition to the examples you discuss, lumping Putin, Bolsonaro, and Kim together as “autocrats” without any acknowledgement of their wildly different histories, stated beliefs, and current relationship with Trump and the US, gives the game away. She supports “democracy” and opposes “authoritarians” everywhere. Don’t we all? But if so we need to have a much clearer understanding of what happened to the first round of “Arab Springs.” Perhaps Washington isn’t behind every world event, but they were certainly in the middle of many “Arab Spring” uprisings, along with other outside forces. What happened to them? We might also want to ask a few questions about the Muslim Brotherhood.

      We all want “democracy” and “freedom” from “authoritarians” and “dictators.” The problem with this kind of appeal, divorced from specific history or context, is that it primes readers to oppose the next “autocrat” — say, in Venezuela. And while *we* would never support military intervention, a little “democratic” regime change could only help. Right?

  3. Seamus Padraig

    I haven’t read TomDispatch in a good long while, so maybe some other commenter here can enlighten me: When did TomDispatch start sounding like the New York Times?

    “As a whirlwind tour of the MENA region suggests, the death and destruction Donald Trump has had a hand in producing extends far beyond our own borders.”

    Does this author really expect us to believe that our troubles in the ME began with Donald Trump? Don’t misunderstand me: Trump’s done plenty of bad things there, like refusing to pull out of Syria, like all his giveaways to Israel, and his suspension of the JCPOA with Iran (which, come to think of it, was yet another Trump giveaway to Israel). But for all his bluster and nonsense, Trump hasn’t actually started anyone brand-new wars or régime-change operations there yet (thank God!). Fact-check: by this time in his first term, Obama already had Trump beat. And by this time in his first term, Bush had both Trump and Obama put together beat! So if Trump’s the best we can do at the moment, I guess I can live with him for now.

    And what was our alternative to Trump in 2016? Why that would be Hillary Clinton, who, as Sec’y of State, had not only helped Obama wreck several countries in the ME (“We came, we saw, he died!”), but was also campaigning hard for president on a platform of establishing a ‘no fly’ zone in Syria–which would have had us at war with Russia in hurry!

    Do the Never-Trumpers of the world ever hit the pause-button on their moral self-satisfaction long enough to think of things like that?

  4. Carolinian

    we have to find a way to hold the one we now have accountable

    And the one before that? And the one before that last one? I recently caught up with Vice–great movie–and we are still waiting for Bush/Cheney to face the music and they were far worse than Trump. Maybe the whole country and its distracted electorate should be held accountable. We have a system designed to manipulate popular opposition but Americans themselves share some of the blame by not paying enough attention or relying on infotainment heavy cable TV. By pretending it’s all about Trump pundits only encourage this trend.

  5. John k

    Seems we wouldn’t have an ageing autocrat if trump had lost the last election? Writer not paying attention. Or understanding it’s all bipartisan.

  6. Lambert Strether Post author

    Holy cow. “Take what you like and leave the rest,” as they say in AA. In this case, what I liked was the coverage of countries we don’t get to hear very much about, and which I have not seen elsewhere. Let’s not be snowflakes!

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