Egypt, Syria, Libya . . . . What is the Appeal of Phoney Elections in the Middle East?

By Juan Cole

The world has been treated to a whole series of “elections” in the Middle East recently. Iraq had parliamentary elections, Libya’s parliament voted for a new prime minister, and Egypt and Syria had presidential elections. This summer, Turkey will have elections.

It would be nice if all these elections signaled a turn in the region to democracy. They don’t. Libya’s supreme constitutional court declared that the parliament did not have the required quorum of 120 members to elect Maitig. His predecessor, Abdullah al-Thinni, has declined to hand power over to him. Maitig’s election was an attempt by Muslim fundamentalists, a plurality in parliament if we count independents, to take over the government so as to enjoy the advantages of incumbency during the parliamentary elections this summer. That they had failed was fairly obvious from the proceedings, and their attempt to soldier on and claim their victory anyway was distasteful to the judges, who are flexing their muscles for the first time on a major case in modern Libyan history. The Muslim fundamentalists clearly thought there was some legitimacy among the public to be had by pretending to have gained the prime ministership by a fair vote instead of admitting that they made a parliamentary coup. Ironically, it is the preliminary court ruling that is the most democratic thing going on in Libya right now. Out on the streets, parliament and prime minister mean little, as elements of the military have rallied to use their munitions to make war on radical militias of the religious Right.

Then we have Syria, where President for Life Bashar al-Assad held jokey elections. His rival was forced to praise him unreservedly. He got 88% of the vote according to his press release. He doesn’t control half the country, which is in fierce rebellion against him. But he seems to have needed the fig leaf of a popular electoral victory to hide his brutal and nasty dictatorship and one-party state. It isn’t that he doesn’t have supporters. The 10% who are Alawi Shiites, the 5% who are Christians, the Druze, 12er Shiites, and secular-minded urban Sunni Muslims, the businessmen in Damascus tied to the state– many groups support the Baath government that al-Assad heads, which is why he is still in power (that and his retention of enough of the army to maintain air and artillery superiority). Regional Shiite support from Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Iran have also helped save his kebab (you can’t say bacon in the Middle East). In the midst of a grinding civil war that has left over 150,000 dead and millions displaced, people actually eagerly went to the polls in Lebanon and in regime-controlled areas of Syria. Some support the regime and want to buck it up. Others have lost faith in the revolution and just want the fighting to stop.

In Egypt, Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi nastily suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, killing hundreds and jailing tens of thousands. Since that party had gotten 53% of the vote for the presidency in 2012, that was an extreme reversal of fortunes, and provoked enormous resentment that in some cases became violent. Al-Sisi made a lot of bright promises to Egyptians about security, bread and renewed prosperity, which he would provide by attracting aid and investments from the Gulf oil monarchies (who were very happy to see the populist, revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood crushed). The official Egyptian television stations and newspapers (there are only a couple of independent newspapers left) engaged in an orgy of Sisi-love. He won by an embarrassing 96% against a leftist candidate who had garnered about a fifth of the voters in a 14-man race for the presidency the year before. Sisi’s quest for legitimation at the ballot box had a set back when turnout was unexpectedly low; adding a third day of voting, probably an illegal step, only slightly ameliorated the shortfall. Sisi does not have a mandate from the majority of registered Egyptian voters, having roughly 40% of their vote (as opposed to 96% of the ones who actually cast a ballot). Today Sisi will trumpet his popular mandate, but in fact it is rather anemic.

In Iraq, the Bush administration’s parliamentary system has produced perpetual gridlock. There is only one plausible prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose Da`wa (Islamic Mission Party or Islamic Call Party) got the largest number of seats (but still only a little more than a fourth of them). But the other parties hate al-Maliki and won’t go into coalition with him. In parliamentary systems it is desirable to have a coalition with 51% of the seats, since otherwise you are constantly open to being unseated by a vote of no confidence. Sometimes minority governments are appointed and they can survive for a while, but it isn’t a recipe for stability. Al-Maliki in any case hasn’t been good with building reconciliation with the Sunni Muslims, and in recent months he is losing bits of Iraq to al-Qaeda, a very bad sign. It may be months before a majority coalition is announced. In the meantime the country is in gridlock. Yesterday students at a university were taken hostage and the regime lost parts of major Sunni cities like Ramadi and Samarra; residents in Mosul to the north began fleeing the fighting. Many bombs were detonated in Baghdad.

So elections in the Middle East are a dead end in and of themselves. They function as authoritarian plebiscites, adding to the power of the president and fobbing off the public with promises that gradually there will be a turn to real democracy. In 2011 the public got tired of waiting for the real thing. Elites have responded with counter-revolutions. Those may not succeed, either.

I think the young people all see the phoney elections for what they are. Some are relatively upright, as with Iraq or Turkey, but are still skewed. In Turkey, the formula used for parliamentary victory is detached from reality and does not resemble the popular vote. In Iraq, the ballots probably weren’t tampered with, but the system produces a perpetual hung parliament. In Syria and Egypt elections were about a rhetoric of popularity for dictators. The Millennial youth tried to tell their elders in 2011 that they no longer accepted the phoney elections, and did not see them as producing legitimate governments. You could say that the governments don’t care. But then why this elaborate sham? It is because the governments do care, and want to be perceived as legitimately elected. Their problem is that is is fairly obvious that mostly they are not; or if they are, as in Baghdad, there was still substantial shenanigans.


Related Viceo

Reuters: “Assad declared landslide victor in Syrian election”

19 Responses

  1. Being unable to create a parliamentary majority as in Iraq is certainly a problem but it is a little hard to blame it on the election. The result presumably mirrors deep divisions in the country and an electoral system which creates a majority government from one minority would not be an improvement.

    A vote of no-confidence, followed by fresh elections – repeated if necessary – may be the only way forward if voters tire of obstruction and intransigence from a party. With the biggest party only getting 25% of the vote, surely many different coalitions are possible.

  2. Sham election may also be what the masses want. They don’t want to admit what they secretly believe, which is that they should be ruled by aristocrats.
    In the 1890’s, Lord Salisbury, an aristocrat with a big, fuzzy beard, passionately fought democratic reforms. As a youth, he wrote numerous articles explaing how democracy would damage Britain.
    But , democracy caught on. It’s part of being modern. But, that could change over time. Military Coups seem to be in fashion.

      • As opposed to the US which of course must be better because it is lilly white and pure unlike the “evil empires of Russia and Iran”.

      • LOL Iran and Russia are simply defending the militants that are sent from the countries who have rigged elections. You really think those people would care, they had NO COUNTRY a few months ago, this is the best thing to ever happen to them. If Syria falls then its all over

  3. There is nothing new here, though it’s worth reminding people regularly. Washington has long used elections to legitimize its satraps. A classic election was Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s election as President of Bolivia in 2002 with 22.5% of the vote. But when Evo Morales won a clear majority of the votes a couple years later, Washington was not happy. And when Venezuelans give majority support to Chavez and Maduro, the US declares the result invalid and illegitimate, despite the presence of international observers, because Washington’s guy didn’t win!

    The difference now is that others have caught on to how the game is played. If Washington can makes elections sacrosanct, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Crimea, and Ukraine can make elections sacrosanct, too. If Washington can hold phoney elections and declare them legitimate, so can others.

    Lots of countries, not just the US, can play the US’ own phoney freedom, democracy, and human rights game.

  4. Good article, Juan, and one that the American Public would do well to read and absorb. The state of the states in the ME is deplorable. The SHAM of “democracy” is being used as a PR move to make brutal regimes and discord look legit,..which is not. We in the West would do well to recognize the reality that most, if not all these countries are not up to difficult task of governing by a democracy. Jefferson said that a free and democratic system of government takes a moral and virtuous society along with enlightened and tolerant minds. Given all the ancient tribal, religious and ethnic issues that come into play all throughout the ME region, it seems iffy at best that the democratic process will work at this point in time. That begs the question then,” What is the alternative?”. The answer to that question is equally difficult and depressing. Dictatorships, benign or not, or Theocracies, run by religious zealots or down right terrorist groups like Al Queda, are also not the answer if the people of the region are to enjoy personal freedoms, opportunities for prosperity and any possibility of respect for basic human rights. I’m not sure at this point what WILL work, however, if the West ever is going to have any semblance of peace ourselves, we must find and support solutions to the issues that exist. Constant war and saber rattling is not going to help us much. We might achieve “quiet”, however we will never have “peace”,..and to two are quite different from each other. We really need to listen more, absorb more of the cultural sensitives and proclivities of the nations that make up the ME, rather try and impose our brand of “democracy” on people that are not really ready for such a system.

  5. Much like the electoral system in the US which is now courtesy of the Supreme Court of the US owned by the 1% who can buy all the votes they they need to make and apply what ever laws are the most profitable to them.

    • Don’t be so glum, actually.

      Cantor just lost his primary in VA even after he outspent his Tea Party rival 5-to-1.

      Even the last election after Citizens United didn’t really work for the elite either. All it did was give a bigger microphone to the crazies the people with money were backing and so people turned against them.

      The problem is that the Democrats have sold their souls so completely it’s really in no position to capitalize on this.

  6. Those dudes are no different from the cynical SOBs who rule us. They know us ordinary people, no matter where we live, are wired to feel the need for LEGITIMACY, and some kind of “rule of law” thingie, some sense that there are constraints to arbitrariness and fraud and abuse, some remedies for them to have recourse to. And of course a means for them to advance the interests of themselves and their tribe, sect, family as against the Other. And you know how sophisticated the auteurs and stage managers have gotten at “Wag the Dog” manipulations of great masses of us who are none more noble than any of the rest of us, who love or just get caught up in the EXCITEMENT of it all. Think of those grinning idiots in Styrofoam “straw hats” pumping rahrah signs and screeching at great R and D conventions, as one example. The election give life to the myths of comity, supports the claims of the winners to hegemony, all that stuff. We ain’t perceptive enough, individually and collectively, to see how badly we are being had, by those ancient greeds and the institutions that have developed to support them… And we, as a mass, and for our own little slices of Stuff, educate and train and herd ourselves right into the chutes.

  7. It’s a struggle between fundamentalist and moderate interpretation of a religion and its compatibility to democracy and the ballet box and more of it and the consequences of it and establishing a tradition of it is a preferred way forward, it seems phony because a vote against the fundamentalist is not the appeal of the secular democrats and so is arming and cheer leading the extremist, propping up the secular democrats and bemoaning the lack of the never land democracy. Now I am curious about the private billionaires you mention funding the extremist from Afghanistan to Western Sahara and puzzled how an Iranian, Russian or Ukrainian might have gas today (for sale) and its account froze and assets sized tomorrow, yet this private financing of violence continues apace.

  8. To be honest, ‘saved his kebab’ isn’t a common phrase or cliche used there. Not that no one can ever say bacon, just that no one does or will there, local or foreigner, due to the religo-culture as correctly pointed in the article, unless in some English medium school or something.

    88% only? Saddam in his day was clearly way more popular than Assad, winning 99% of the vote. Phoney votes for phoney legitimacy. Reasons maybe plain despot narcissism and tyranny. International appeasement show. Fake show of freedom to locals. Inability to beat other political groups head on and hence have an election to rig to gain power and crush the other guys. Hypocritical principles of over-confident local or foreign powers who expect their guys will win and view elections as an act of formality…sometimes backfires when the other disliked or extremist group wins instead which leads to a harsh undemocratic divisive or brutal reaction like the Algeria 90’s or Palestine Hamas win.

    Kuwait is said to have a relatively decent monarch parliamentary system, though its been rocked recently with a series of dissolutions. Lebanon has an intact voting system but still denominational.

  9. In Tunisia there will be free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, probably held this year to consolidate the democratic transition. There is still also a reasonably good chance that Yemen will have decent elections following the promulgation of its upcoming constitution.

    There will be another reaction against dictatorship and counterrevolution. In Egypt, 2008 was a precursor and progenitor for 2011. Across the region, there will be another revolutionary wave in the future that will follow up on 2011. It simply will not be possible to stop the generational change that is occurring the region. Those who try to cling to past decades will end up be washed away by forces more radical (in that their rejection of systems will be more thorough) than those whom they have been contending with.

    In every case where new dictators emerge, the same problems that beset the previous dictators will destroy the new ones. New opposition movements exploiting political, social, and economic causes will appear, taking up new banners but still using revolutionary tactics.

  10. All of the aforementioned nations are in transition of one sort or another. I think the situation in Egypt is illuminating. When Morsi won the first free elections in Egypt with a not all that impressive majority of the voters, his administration proceeded to implement Sharia law which – as events have proven – the majority of Egyptians did not accept that path thus the situation that the country finds itself in currently. You can rail against the military’s influence in Sisi’s election and his rule, but the Morsi alternative is not one the Egyptian people wanted nor is it one the US would have been happy with.

    • Dude, in the bigger picture of Imperial decline and fail, my guess is that no one gives a rat’s behind what “the US would have been happy with.” Particularly with the “happiness” of what implicitly you define “the US” to be, that Brooding Presence, Hulking Idiot on the Great Game board, with its little waning pile of “national interest” tokens… One wonders what that slurb of a phrase, “the Egyptian people,” actually uncovers or relates to, either.

  11. It seems that people ( the deaf, dumb and blind majority do get what they deserve for their simple minded adoration and willing acceptance of authoritarian and dictatorial leaders who put stability and the status quo over genuine democracy and the rule of law. The mentality in the US, the “greatest democracy” is the same with voices drowned out by the Fox News neocon media and oligarchic structure. We Muslims are ignorant of Islam preferring ritual worship to spiritual development and preoccupied with establishing Islamist governments with the trappings of Islam without its ethical and spiritual values.

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