The Mini-Mezation of Arab Autocracy

Unable – like all autocracies – to hear the swan song and exit gracefully, Arab authoritarianism has found a new way to cling to power: tactical infantilization. In strikingly-comedic vignettes, were it not for the urgency of the political crises hitting both of their countries, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Libyan dictator-in-the-making Khalifa Haftar recently appeared at press conferences with a child by their side.

The obvious attempt was to woo their audiences – one can hardly speak of a constituency – in feeling sympathy to the falling Bouteflika and the rising Haftar.

To be sure, the public relation technique of showcasing relatives has, since at least the JFK and Jackie early 1960s Camelot days, become quite the routine technique for politicians round the world in need of deflecting any crisis or navigating a turbulence zone. In that sense, Arab autocrats are no exception in being unimaginative and manipulative, and indeed leaders such as Jordan’s King Abdallah II and Syria’s Bachar al Assad have regularly made extensive use of this, including as regards their respective spouses and in hiring Western public relation firms.

What the simultaneous 2019 Bouteflika/Haftar moment reveals, however, is slightly different – a combination, at different ends of the political life spectrum, of a similar trick used rather nonchalantly and, as it were, unconvincingly. For the Algerian demonstrators clamoring to end a clanic 56-year old system will hardly be coaxed into halting their calls for democracy upon such sights of humanity. Similarly, the road to Tripoli is through a fight-to-the-finish about the northern corridor held by the Misrata militias, not a matter of winning Libyan hearts and minds.

The little boys episode is also importantly a sign of the times of the impasse reached by Arab political transformation. Having, for now, survived the 2011 Arab Spring tsunami, several of these regimes have successfully repackaged authoritarianism, a systemic closure branded now unashamedly as a viable long-term political development option, as vividly depicted in the case of Egypt’s Abdelfattah al Sisi reelected potentially for the next eleven years.

The cosmetics of the affair also speak to another dimension of the degeneration of an Arab polity in which the ‘strongman’ and ‘stability’ stratagem have been dusted off, showing an uncanny resilience in their deceitful power. That Faustian bargain has, however, always been successful thanks primarily to the role of Western major powers. Once only hypocritical or tacitly supportive – of, say, Zein al Abidine Ben Ali’s or Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt regimes – the current leaders of these democratic countries are now actively contriving the forging ahead of the new breed of Middle Eastern and North African authoritarianism.

In Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman’s alleged ordering the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi has been all but whitewashed with the help of the White House and other Western leaders, and in Libya the international bandwagoning behind a warlord (described as “an insurgent combating terrorism”) is getting crowded ahead of a likely coronation in the name of chaos-avoidance.

Though not to that extent, physical rejuvenation was tried before in the region. In the late 1990s, the Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim ironically coined the double-entendreGamlaka” to capture the nepotistic manner in which Mubarak was increasingly putting forth his son Gamal as heir apparent to the presidency – in so doing turning the republic (gamhouriya) into a monarchy (mamlaka).(Ibrahim was summarily put in house arrest and, later, jailed.) In 2000, that is precisely what took place in Syria when the son of the dictator Hafez al Assad was installed in power upon the death of his father – a position he retains. Others in that mold feature Saddam Hussayn’s sons Uday and Qusay and Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al Islam.

Gamlaka, however, travels, and the global reach of nepotism can not yet be minimized as one can now listen to the daughter of the current US president speak security at the Munich conference or see her turn down the directorship of the World Bank.


Picture: Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, 2019.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

Politologue et historien, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou est professeur d'histoire internationale a l'Institut de Hautes études internationales et du développement à Genève. Précédemment à l’Université Harvard, il enseigne également à Sciences Po Paris.