June 5, 2014
A pair of presidential coronations have underlined the truth that it takes more than an election to make a democracy
No one was holding their breath for the results of Syria's presidential election, which was always certain to confirm that Bashar al-Assad has been given a third seven-year term by a grateful, or frightened, people.
Bleak jokes and cartoons have been circulating for weeks in the anti-Assad camp on the theme of barrel bombs serving as ballot boxes.
In 2007, when he faced a referendum with no rivals, he won with a whopping 97.6% of the vote. With two approved challengers giving this bizarre contest a veneer of competition, this time he achieved 88.7%
It was never going to be easy for Assad to credibly surpass the 96.1% officially attained by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the latest general to become president of Egypt on a reported turnout of 47.5%
That, if true, compares favourably with the 52% who voted when the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi narrowly beat the ancien régime candidate in 2012.
Morsi may have been an unpopular failure, as his enemies say, but it bears repeating that he was still the country's only democratically elected president when he was overthrown a year ago.
Voting hours were extended in both Damascus and Cairo. But internationally, the contrast between the two elections could hardly be greater. The US, Britain and France all rushed to congratulate Sisi when the final results were published on Tuesday – though they did pay lip service to worries about human rights and accountability. The United Nations, to its credit, sounded much cooler.
Sisi's Saudi and other Gulf allies – blissfully untroubled by voters or lobbyists who might question their foreign policy – promised yet more cash support to bolster the creaking Egyptian economy.
The same countries that signalled business as usual with Egypt dismissed Syria's election as a farce or parody intended to bolster Assad's position at home and abroad and to ensure that any peace – a distant prospect – is on his terms.
Conversely, it was hailed by allies such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, and given a clean bill of health by the observers they sent.
"Egypt's presidential elections were surreal enough," tweeted the blogger Mona Eltahawy. "No words can even begin to describe Syria's."
The coincidence of the two sets of results being announced within 24 hours or so of each other underlines the grim state of affairs in the wider Middle East.
With the exception of Tunisia, scene of the first Arab spring uprising, no government enjoys democratic legitimacy or pluralist politics as understood in the west.
Libyan politics is in permanent chaos and the central government has been unable to impose its authority or rein in independent militias. Conflict is simmering between Islamists of varying hues and a nationalist general in the Sisi mode.
The Gulf autocracies have been spending their way out of unrest while suppressing Islamists and others who might challenge them. Performance has been a little better in Morocco and Jordan, which at least have parliaments.
Algeria, scarred by its civil war in the 1990s, has just re-elected a president-for-life – and is casting itself as a new-old bulwark against Islamic extremism. Politics in Iraq and Lebanon are determined by sectarian allegiance. Yemen has undergone a "managed transition" but it is a deeply troubled one.
The lesson is the familiar one that elections alone do not make democracies.
Sisi faces enormous challenges and the turnout does not guarantee him the solid support he wanted as he is forced to tackle poverty and unemployment and attract foreign investment.
Hosni Mubarak repressed the Muslim Brotherhood but the new strongman is out not just to exclude but to eradicate them – hardly a basis for long-term stability.
Assad's future is less clear. Behind his inevitable victory lies the stark truth that votes were cast only in the 40% or so of the country he controls – which excludes large areas of the north and east.
The Saudis and other Gulf states still support rebel fighting formations – as much because of inertia and hostility to Iran as anything else – but western backing is on a downward trajectory as concerns mount about the risks of blowback from al-Qaida-linked groups.
Counter-terrorism, not Syrian regime change or Syrian freedoms, is at the top of the agenda in Washington, Paris and London these days.
"The US is reverting to the pre-Arab spring status quo," Shadi Hamid, author of an acclaimed new book on Islamist movements, told a Chatham House audience on Wednesday. "And democracy is being relegated to second-rate status."
The question is whether, by the time Assad's new presidential term ends, it will be back to business as usual in Syria too.
*Photo courtesy of REUTERS