Uncomfortable trio: West, Dictators and Terrorism

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“People talk about the Middle East as if there were only two options: dictatorship or terrorism. However, this is a false dichotomy, both are terrorist groups”.

(Dr Maha Azzam)

This concluding remark by Dr Azzam last night at “Al Qaeda and Beyond: where do Arab dictatorships fit” is a powerful key to interpreting developments in the Middle East. Experts on Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Iraq analysed the relationship between dictators and terrorism, posing the question “why is the West so obsessed with dictatorships?”

In a post Arab Spring world, voices from both Europe and the USA have been advocating a return to dictatorial government in the Middle East. Distant spectators observed democratic revolutions turning into violent uprisings, peaceful protests becoming armed resistance groups and once quiet areas becoming terrorist controlled regions. The focus quickly shifted back home, with many voices denouncing ISIS attacks and asking how all of this could have happened. It is this fear and shock that has lead many to advocate increased support for Assad and Saleh, questioning the possibility of a democratic future in the region.

The history of support for dictatorships by the West is a story as long as colonialism. Even at the time of the Pahlavi dynasty in Persia, Western powers strongly supported dictators throughout the Middle East. A single individual was easier to control than a democratically elected government and his ethnicity could easily be exploited to maintain the divide and rule strategy adopted in colonial times.

It is clear that the West has benefitted from their relationship with dictators since the end of formal colonialism. From the trade deals between Italy and Libya to the military support given to Mubarak by the US, dictators in the region have been strong partners and supporters of Western interests in the area. On the opposite side of the spectrum, whenever an unfriendly government took power, Western democracies resorted to terrorist groups to destabilize the country and re-obtain their control. A classic example was the Taliban in Afghanistan, armed and supported by the US in its quest for a pipeline from Central Asia.

We should not disregard however the use dictators themselves made of terrorist groups. As illustrated by Basher Al Assad releasing jihadist prisoners in the wake of the Syrian revolution, terrorist groups have been widely used by local powers to portray themselves as “the lesser of two evils”. More recently, Sisi has used the threat of ISIS to curb peaceful civil society groups and to justify the brutal actions of Egypt’s army in Sinai. This creates a vicious cycle in which opponents of the government, deprived of their freedom of speech and assembly, resort to armed revolts, justifying increased violence from the government.

Nowadays there are two terrorist movements in the Middle East: state terrorism and religious terrorism. Depending on the time and circumstance, the West has simply opted for one or the other, perpetrating breaches of human rights and the lack of democracy in the region.

By Martina Villa

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