Government Survival Strategies in the Middle East

This paper is part of ACW’s fourth book, titled The Arab World Beyond Conflict.

Regional and global geopolitics, intrigues, and rivalries often attract the most attention among analysts examining the conflicts plaguing the Middle East. But it is in fact the persistent, grinding, and often stagnant domestic conditions that are at the core of every national conflict; they provide the brittle kindling that foreign and domestic actors can easily ignite into actual military conflagrations. When we examine “what went wrong” in Arab countries facing wars, rebellions, and uprisings, we do not need to look much farther than the systematic human rights abuses, the endemic political marginalization, and the disempowerment or de-development of civil society for our first answers.

The traditional recommendations on how to fix states confronting these conditions are calls for reform: urging governments to amend laws, revise policies, and proactively reverse their deliberate efforts to keep civil society weak and under heel. The challenge for a human rights activist, an academic, or even a journalist seeking to “reform” Arab politics is the governments’ firm and deep belief that their populations must remain marginalized with no meaningful voice in their affairs and no accountability for the powers—economic, political, or security—that govern them. Arab states simply don’t want to be reformed.

The human rights abuses that these states commit typically include arbitrary arrest coupled with torture; extrajudicial or judicial executions; and curtailment of citizens’ free expression in writing or in protest. These are part and parcel of a system of control over their populations. The disempowerment of civil society––that is, refusing to allow its organizations to operate independently––is also a product of deliberate design. This is because states that exercise absolute and unchecked authority perceive as an existential threat a citizenry with a voice in the levers of government and in the economy, demanding respect for their human rights.

What can be done about the most authoritarian governments whose survival depends on suppression of their citizens? At best, civil society can chip away at the margins of their abuses in areas like systemic torture and push for a loosening of press restrictions or the release of political detainees––constituting an exercise in a kind of “liberalization” that is usually advocated by softer western states.

The fact remains, however, that when there is a little more freedom, space, and engagement, the first impulse of civil society is to get rid of undemocratic governments that face no test at the ballot box. This is typically because authoritarianism goes hand in hand with corruption, abuse, and inefficiency. A government that has no accountability and whose primary purpose is to block any challenges to its rule, no matter how faint, will by nature become corrupt, abusive, and ineffective—at least that is the pattern in the Middle East where, sadly, such governments proliferate. In reality, the intentional policies of marginalization, human rights abuses, and knee-capping of civil society have become governmental “conflict avoidance strategies.” They typically work for a long time until there is an eruption of the sort we saw in the 2011 uprisings or Iraq’s war against the Islamic State (IS).

Egypt as a Striking Example

Egypt is a perfect case in point. The Egyptian revolution unfolded at a time when the former president, Hosni Mubarak, had eased up on his absolute control over the population. In 2005, well before the uprisings, the Mubarak government bowed to pressure from the George W. Bush Administration to “democratize” and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, long a semi-tolerated opposition, to compete more broadly in elections. The Brotherhood then won 88 seats in parliament—although not without eight deaths during violent polling booth clashes.1 The sudden opening of political space reflected the government’s desire to show the world what political pluralism in Egypt would look like, with Islamists in ascendance; in a sense the lawmakers were saying, “You want democracy? Here’s democracy for you. But are you sure you want democracy?”

By 2011, the Egyptian press was certainly freer than it had been in prior decades, and Egyptian civil society organizations––primarily Muslim Brotherhood groups providing social services, but also human rights organizations and emerging media outlets––were strong and active, if tightly overseen by the government and functioning in narrow spaces.2 What remained entrenched, however, was torture and abuse by Egypt’s security forces; indeed, the monopoly on authorized violence is a state’s ultimate form of societal control, and it is clearly quite addictive to security forces that operate with impunity.

Violence by the state was what broke the back of the Egyptian people. When the Egyptian uprising erupted in January 2011, it was on the anniversary of the death of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian man whom security forces had tortured to death in Alexandria. The initial protests across the country were overwhelmingly about the demand for accountability for abuse by the security forces in addition to ending the harsh military trials of civilians.3

The electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood following the 2011 Egyptian revolution, in both the parliament and the presidency, reflected its strength in civil society throughout the country and its popularity among a wide segment of the population. Many speculate whether more secular or nationalist candidates would have been more successful had they had the same space to organize and reach the public; others explain away the weak showing of secular and leftist parties as a product of their forced disorganization.

After the 2013 counterrevolution, it was no accident that the coup government’s first act was to jail all of the country’s viable opposition—some tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathizers.4 Next, the government moved to kill over 1,000 protesters at Rabaa and al-Nahda Squares in 2013 as well as hundreds more in protests in the year or two after the massacre.5 Such government crackdowns have largely ended popular street protests as a mode of resistance in Egypt, at least for now.

The Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi government learned its lesson from what it now regarded as the naïve and weak Mubarak regime; it has moved to ensure that there will not be an iota of space for another uprising like the one in 2011. Apparently, the Sisi government is not satisfied that its aggressive and violent campaign against the Brotherhood and its supporters—including declaring it a terrorist organization, shutting down its civil society organizations, and confiscating all of its private and organizational assets from schools, hospitals, and the like—is enough to curb political threats in the country.6 Therefore, it has turned to all other political opposition, including people who pose no actual political or competitive threat like members of the secular and leftist parties or even old regime loyalists like Ahmed Shafiq, and most recently Mubarak’s sons.7

One of President Sisi’s first acts was to pass a draconian Public Assembly Law, effectively making it illegal to protest anywhere. His government then passed a new NGO (non-governmental organization) law that ends the notion of any independent civil society organization in the country.8 And still not satisfied with this extreme disempowerment of civil society, Sisi has moved to arrest or ban travel by the country’s human rights activists and journalists; this now applies even to photographers, actors, dancers, musicians, singers, and artists.9

There is no free press in Egypt anymore; instead, there is mass surveillance of private communications thanks to technology sold by western companies. In recent months alone, Egypt adopted a law that empowers the state’s top media regulatory agency to use the “fake news” label to shut down social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers, without having to obtain a court order.10 Another new law allows blocking websites with content deemed a threat to national security.11

The one concrete gain from the revolution was ending military trials, but the Sisi government moved to restore those as well, trying more civilians since it has come to power than during over 30 years of Mubarak’s reign.12 Human Rights Watch’s most recent report showed widescale, systemic torture in Egypt’s prisons and at the hands of Egypt’s security forces.13 Clearly, the situation is worse than ever before.

The population is quiescent for now, save for the limited war in Sinai where, for five years, the government has been unable to defeat no more than allegedly a few thousand militants.14 The situation there is not tenable because at times, state repression and marginalization can have disastrous outcomes, creating a backlash of horrific proportions. This is what happened in Iraq in entirely predictable ways.

The Iraqi Example

The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and its remarkable takeover in 2014 of large swaths of Iraqi territory, facilitated by the near instantaneous evaporation of Iraqi security forces, captured world attention. In reality, this had unfolded for over a decade, starting with the traumas of the 2003 Iraq war, including the death of over half a million people as well as imprisonment and torture of Iraqis at the hands of American forces. The radicalization was thus foreseeable. The rise of IS was also a result of the highly sectarian government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which divided the nation into Sunni and Shia warring camps for many years to come.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and others sounded the alarm about Maliki’s policies against the Sunni population during his rule. HRW also warned against his administration’s laws of political exclusion and arbitrary mass arrests and torture, a corrupt judicial system, and indiscriminate killings and bombardment (including the use of barrel bombs against protests and violence in the Sunni provinces), advising that they would lead to war.15 In 2013, this writer warned in a New York Times op-ed that, “The Iraqi government has hurled the country to the brink of a new civil war.”16 By early 2014, well before IS’s appearance, 500,000 Sunnis had been displaced by the fighting.17 The Iraqi government’s conflict avoidance or conflict abatement strategies had created a vastly worse social and political crisis. These were the conditions that galvanized support for extremist groups in Sunni areas, which coalesced into IS and spawned a renewed terror crisis.

Unfortunately, the most important measures to avoid a reemergence of a new outright war are still missing in Iraq. In dealing with the Islamic State, Iraqi security forces have committed outrageous violence against IS suspects and their family members, with the most horrific torture and abuse videotaped and proudly published on Facebook posts of Iraqi police and soldiers. Since its battlefield victory over the organization, the Iraqi government has pursued mass prosecutions of over 16,000 alleged IS members with no regard to what crime they may have committed, resulting most often in life sentences or the death penalty.18 And while these prosecutions have taken place in the name of justice, they have been devoid of any meaningful participation from IS victims, including the Yezidis who arguably suffered the most at the hands of the organization. The ongoing detention of IS wives and children shows that the government remains focused on collective punishment instead of reconciliation. Rather than meet the demands of its people half-way, the government has doubled down on its brutality, as seen in the attacks in summer 2018 on protesters in Basra, whose grievances were primarily economic.19

Ultimately, there is far more hope for reform in Iraq, given its democratic structure and semblance of real political competition. The recent peaceful transfer of power from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Adel Abdul-Mahdi, in elections whose results no one inside or outside the country could predict, is a meaningful step in Iraq’s political development toward a place where power is contested at the ballot box and not at the barrel of a gun. But for Iraq to secure its status as an emerging democracy in the Middle East and as a state ruled by law, in contrast to armed groups like IS, it must first and foremost grapple with accountability for the gross abuses of its security forces.

Meanwhile, so long as governments in the Arab world continue to see power as a zero-sum game, as the state versus its own citizenry, it is difficult to envision stable and just states in the region, at least in the short term. Without empowered civil societies, broad political inclusion, and respect for human rights, Arab states will remain fragile houses of cards, to be played, manipulated, and conquered by the next strongest interloper.

< Table of contents

1 “From Plebiscite to Contest? Egypt’s Presidential Election,” Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2005,, and Daniel Williams, “Police Attack Voters During Last Day of Egypt Election,” The Washington Post, December 8, 2005,
2 “Institutionalized Repression in Egypt—Civil Society Under Assault: Repression and Responses in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 18, 2017,
3 Shounaz Meky, “Remembering Khaled Saeed, Whose Death Sparked Egypt’s Revolution,” Al Arabiya English, January 25, 2014,
4 Patrick Kingsley, “Muslim Brotherhood spokesman arrested in continuing Egypt crackdown,” The Guardian, September 14, 2014,
5 “All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt,” Human Rights Watch, June 16, 2015,
6 “Egypt: Terrorist Tag Politically Driven: Designation Criminalizes All Brotherhood Activity,” Human Rights Watch, December 28, 2013,
7  Declan Walsh, “Egypt’s Election Should Be a Lock. So Why Is President Sisi Worried?” The New York Times, March 23, 2018,
8 “Egypt: Deeply Restrictive New Assembly Law,” Human Rights Watch, November 26, 2013,
9 Declan Walsh and Nour Youssef, “As Sisi Silences Critics, Hopes Fade That Egypt’s Crackdown Will Ease,” The New York Times, May 23, 2018,, and “Egypt: Campaign to Crush Artistic Freedom: Restrictions, Blanket Censorship, and Prosecution in Military Courts,” Human Rights Watch, August 16, 2018,
10  “Rights Group Calls Egypt an ‘open-air Prison’ for Critics,” Al Jazeera, September 20, 2018,
11 Ibid.
12 Sahar Aziz, “The Expanding Jurisdiction of Egypt’s Military Courts,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 12, 2016,
13 “’We Do Unreasonable Things Here’: Torture and National Security in al-Sisi’s Egypt,” Human Rights Watch, September 5, 2017,
14  Sahar Aziz, “De-securitizing Counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula,” The Brookings Institution, May 2, 2017,
15  “World Report 2014: Rights Trends in World Report 2014: Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, January 21, 2014,
16  Sarah Leah Whitson, “How Baghdad Fuels Iraq’s Sectarian Fire,” The New York Times, May 15, 2013,
18 “Flawed Justice: Accountability for ISIS crimes in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, December 5, 2017,, and Margaret Coker and Falih Hassan, “A 10-Minute Trial, a Death Sentence: Iraqi Justice for ISIS Suspects,” The New York Times, April 17, 2018,
19 “Iraq: Security Forces Fire on Protestors. Investigate Use of Excessive, Lethal Force in Basra,” Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2018,, and Tamer El-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, “Iraqi Protests over Dire Living Conditions Resume in Baghdad and the South,” The Washington Post, July 20, 2018,