Terrorism and authoritarianism: lessons from the Middle East region

By Dr. Omar Al-Ghazzi, lecturer at the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield

With recurrent terrorist attacks in Europe, it has sadly become commonplace for political figures to repeat the defiant statement “we won’t let terrorists change our way of life”. In addition to the violence and suffering these attacks inflict on innocent people, the aim of terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State (IS) group, is to intensify public anxiety over security and to facilitate panicky security-minded government reactions.

With this in mind, I want in this blog post to discuss how in the Middle East region, the fateful fight against terrorism and fears over instability, have been used to justify crackdowns on freedom of expression. While this may be regarded as a typical feature of authoritarian regions, in fact the phenomenon of governments channelling public fears over terrorist violence to serve their own interests can occur, as history shows, in any part of the world. I suggest there are important lessons to learn from the Middle East region about how governments seek popular support for crackdowns on media freedom, with damaging long-term consequences.

No region has suffered from the impact of terrorism and other brutal forms of violence against civilian populations as much as the Middle East. And nowhere else have fears of random violence and insecurity been used so effectively by governments to limit freedom of expression. I aim to demonstrate that government reactions to terrorism can easily go down an authoritarian path as they take advantage of a public mandate to deal with threats to collective security and stability. The threat of instability is an authoritarian’s favourite route to increased power.

 

A binary choice

The first step in an authoritarian reaction to violence and instability is to present a clear choice to people: give us your consent to fight terrorism and provide you with security or choose more terror and instability. You only have that one choice to make. And you cannot ask follow up questions; no “ifs”, no “buts”. This government line has been successful in the Middle East. While in 2011 the Arab world was deeply shaken by protests and demands for freedom, by 2014 governments had successfully propagated the idea that protests are bound to lead to instability and a breakdown in state institutions. From Egypt to Morocco, pro-government voices repeat the rhetorical question: ‘do you want what happened in Syria to happen here? OK then, do not complain about the lack of freedom and certainly do not protest or lend support to protestors’.

The second step is when governments propagate narratives that equate patriotism with pro-government political positions. The logic goes: ‘If you support government moves to establish stability, you are a patriot. If you have an alternative point of view, then you are a traitor. At best, you are misinformed and naïve, and at worst you are a terrorist sympathizer.

 

What is terrorism?

The second lesson from the Middle East relates to the strategically ambiguous and sweeping definitions of terrorism. Over the past few years, we have seen a U-turn in previous Arab governments’ policy towards defining terrorism. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Arab governments at first reacted against the loose definitions of terrorism deployed by Western politicians. Arab governments warned that the common ‘war on terrorism’ tropes only stereotype Muslims, and they argued that armed movements in the context of occupation, such as in Palestine, are motivated by resistance rather than being part of global terrorism.

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, however, governments adopted the “war on terror” frame wholesale and ditched their former reservations. As the threat of terrorism took a previously unthinkable turn for the worse with the rise of the IS group, publics tended to support government-led campaigns on terrorism. However, that undefined public mandate, exercised without the checks and balances that should mark democratic systems, implied a blank check over what gets defined as terrorism and/ or an existential security threat. Popular Islamist parties, which have been legally represented in parliaments and governments for decades, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon, were designated as terrorist groups by different countries. Nowadays dissidents, whether secular or religious, regularly get accused of terrorism. In Saudi Arabia, atheists can be legally charged with terrorism. In Turkey, TV dating shows and Wikipedia have been banned under emergency laws that were supposed to provide security and stability following the attempted coup in July 2016.

Clearly, things have got badly out of hand. While democratic systems are designed to curtail unbridled government powers, I think no one should underestimate the ability of violence and terrorism, and the genuine fears they engender, to erode those checks and balances and render them ineffective. That lesson from the Middle East is relevant to all countries facing a sustained threat from terrorist groups. Groups such as IS are intent on ending pluralism, tolerance, and freedom of expression— simply because they know they can only thrive under unjust political systems where such values are absent.