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Mohamed Morsi's death and the power of Arab despots

The death of Egypt's first democratically elected president should be a wake-up call for Western leaders aiding despots
A man hangs a poster of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as people attend a symbolic funeral ceremony on 18 June in Istanbul (AFP)

The death of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in court after more than six years of detention, in solitary confinement and without appropriate medical care, also signals the death of non-violent protest in the Arab world. 

The consequences are a nightmare scenario, associated with the persistence of despotism in its military, presidential and monarchical forms. 

A diverse range of youth movements, feminists, liberals, nationalists, leftists, and non-ideologically-committed people have chanted in the main squares of Arab capitals in recent years, devising creative strategies for peaceful protest.

In 2013, in the run-up to the Egyptian coup, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its Arab affiliates gripped popular imagination with their peaceful protest, facing the Egyptian security state at its most brutal moment. Hundreds died in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, where protesters gathered and refused to leave after their elected president was deposed. 

Grassroots activism

Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, Algiers, Manama, Daraa, Muscat, Qatif, Buraidah, and Fallujah are among the many Arab cities and towns that have experimented with peaceful protest. The 2011 "Arab Spring" was driven by grassroots activists and dissidents who had simply had enough of the violence of both state and non-state actors. This year, the second wave has gripped Algeria and Sudan. 

Arab regimes have inflicted disproportionate violence against peaceful dissidents, critics, students, feminists, minorities, religious scholars and ordinary citizens. They have exercised naked power, most of it illegitimate; despots have no other way to enforce obedience but with the iron fist.

Those with more resources tried to bribe their populations by distributing benefits, but alas, many people remained outside these patronage networks. 

The power of Arab despots is mainly derived from their accomplices: a cohort of Western governments, including the US, Britain and France

Even so, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul late last year is stark proof of how fast someone can fall from the inner circle of despotic power, and even face a brutal death at the hands of the regime they once defended.  

Despots spread fear and reap broken lives, stalling development and uncreative minds. They stifle economies with corruption, and sabotage freedom with empty nationalist rhetoric. They create their own cults of personality, coercing people to worship them. 

The power of Arab despots is mainly derived from their accomplices: a cohort of Western governments, including the US, Britain and France. Russia and China joined the chorus in later years. They all entered a fierce competition over who would win the most financial rewards for selling these despots more and more deadly technology, used to launch regional wars, spy on citizens, and torture ordinary people.  

Fuelling terrorism

Western leaders engage in doublespeak, praising the despots' so-called reforms while selling them deadly weapons to violate their citizens' human rights. These regimes have used vicious torture - or in US parlance, "enhanced interrogation techniques" - and chopped up and dissolved bodies, but they emerge unscathed, amid multimillion-dollar public relations campaign.

The West paints such despots as pillars of stability and peace who protect minorities, empower women and buy weapons from Western arms manufacturers. They have fought the very terrorism they created, "protecting" us in Western capitals.

The alternative to despots was often thought to be bad for women and minorities, and definitely a threat to Israel. In a twisted logic, despots were considered a source of stability, while democratic governments wrought chaos. 

French-made tanks used by the Saudi-led coalition are pictured in Yemen’s coastal district of Dhubab in 2017 (AFP)
French-made tanks used by the Saudi-led coalition are pictured in Yemen’s coastal district of Dhubab in 2017 (AFP)

Democracy is thought to lead to the takeover of the state by radical Islamists, the likes of Morsi, who allegedly enslave women, kill Christians and incite sectarian violence. This generates a flow of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants, while dictators keep the human flow at home, or so the logic goes - even if this requires detention camps and brutal policing of borders. 

European leaders forget that the flow of Arab refugees started with Israeli aggression against Palestinians in 1948, and later continued with Arab despots who terrorised their own populations and deprived them of a decent life at home. Such ills have thrived for decades, as Western governments continue to rely on the devils they know, refusing to give democracy a chance. 

Short-lived freedom

In 2011, the majority of Arabs believed in peaceful protest, a strategy that the West preached, as unarmed protesters faced tanks in the streets of Arab capitals. These strategies succeeded, albeit for a short time, in pursuing justice, freedom and dignity - only to see a swift reversal.

The short-lived air of freedom was terminated by a consortium of reactionary regimes posing as neoliberal havens of excessive consumption, alleged religious tolerance and happiness, all under police brutality.

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Saudi Arabia and the UAE led the drive to terminate the much-awaited drastic change across the region. While presidents were toppled in several capitals, regimes remained intact. The underlying structures of power - the brutal intelligence and security networks, the corrupt militaries, the imported mercenaries and the PR firms - continued to distort reality. 

Repression is called reform; purges are called anti-corruption campaigns; entertainment industries are called freedom; and arbitrary detentions are called anti-terrorism measures.   

Peaceful protest in 2011 was a quantum leap, a new chapter that turned the page on decades of violence committed by non-state actors.

The terrorism that mass protest eclipsed had spread from the mountains of Algeria to the residential compounds of Saudi Arabia, passing through tourist sites and ancient religious shrines, and killing in the process thousands of ordinary citizens. Nobody was more pleased about the wave of violence than the despots themselves. 

But the window on peaceful change is closing. The message is clear by now: it is either the despot or the radical groups, most of which were established and supported by the despots themselves and their Western allies.

None of those actors succeeded in toppling an Arab regime, or replacing it with the Islamic utopia they preached. The Islamic State (IS) was an exception: its rise and demise are still shrouded in secrecy, but even in this case, the group failed to expand beyond the borders drawn for it by powers stronger than it. 

Death of the peaceful alternative

Morsi's collapse in an Egyptian court symbolised the death of the peaceful alternative, as much as the fall of IS ushered in the end of the territorially based, Islamically inspired state. 

The peaceful alternative will not succeed as long as the ancien regimes continue to enjoy the support of the West. The death of the non-violent choice of the majority of Arabs will truly invigorate the violent alternative. 

The death of Morsi should be a wake-up call to prevent the whole region from descending into the abyss

Yes, many people will call Morsi a martyr - but those who detest the peaceful alternative will laugh, as they prefer martyrs to die in the battlefield, fighting an eternal battle between good and evil. In their worldview, there is only white and black, with no room for shades of grey.

The death of Morsi should be a wake-up call to prevent the whole region from descending into the abyss. Sustained despotism is definitely not sustained development.

It is time for the Western accomplices of Arab despotism to reconsider their historical relationship with those who have truly stifled democracy with petrodollars. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Madawi al-Rasheed
Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @MadawiDr