Competing Authoritarianism: Sisi versus Erdoğan

This month, Egyptians head to the polls to elect their president. On paper, the only challenger to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the relatively unknown Egyptian politician Mousa Mostafa Mousa.

The real challenger to Sisi, however, is not from inside Egypt, but another regional leader, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

As Steven A. Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank wrote: “Strongmen are back in favour these days.” Following the failure of the Arab spring and the weakening of many Arab states, the region has shifted its interest away from democracy in favour of strongmen leaders. In such climate, both the Sisi and Erdoğan are subtly competing to market different authoritarian models to replace the current struggling regional order.

I have written before that Egypt’s Sisi is not a politician; he sees himself instead as state builder. Together with his patrons in Saudi Arabia and UAE, Sisi is forming a trio that provides a new state model different to past authoritarian ones.

The new trio sees political Islam as a joint enemy that aims to undermine not just their leadership, but also the very essence of nationhood that their founding fathers worked hard to build following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Hence they collaborate to fight all cultish political Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its sister groups in other Arab states.

On the other hand in Turkey, Erdoğan, a cunning politician, also sees himself as a state builder. Nonetheless, unlike his Arab opponents, he has based his model state on reviving the Ottoman order that dominated the region before World War One.  In a recent speech, Erdoğan said Turkey means more than the territory of its physical borders, and that half of his heart is devoted to former Ottoman cities such as Aleppo, Kirkuk, and Jerusalem.

His words as well as his ideology trigger deep unease in many Arab capitals. This is not the first time Erdoğan has mentioned regional cities in his speeches, but what was once seen as rhetoric aimed at a domestic audience is now seen as a serious threat to regional order, particularly after the Turkish invasion of the northern Syrian region of Afrin, with the help of Islamist fighters.

The Turkish president relies heavily on political Islam as an ideology. He hosts many members of various cultish Islamist groups inside Turkey and mistakenly sees them as popular in the Arab world, despite the fact their popularity has significantly subsided.  

Although the Turkish president rose to power through sound democratic process, he has subtly evolved to a fully fledged authoritarian ruler and transformed Turkey "into a totalitarian prison". Such ruthlessness has ended Turkey’s alleged democratic model in the eye of many Arabs and quashed the differences between Erdoğan’s style of rule, and that of other Arab autocrats.

To counter Erdoğan’s threat, the trio of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE are providing their alternative model, which differs than Erdoğan’s Turkish model in three main aspects:

First, the Egyptian, Saudi, Emirati trio is a collaborative authoritarianism, in which each leadership invests and supports the other. That is a departure of the era of one-man era of Nasser, Saddam and Ghaddafi. The leadership in the three countries realises the one-man model is fragile and vulnerable to spectacular collapse. Hence they aim to work together to avoid the fate of their predecessors. The Turkish president, however, is still relying heavily on the one-man model despite its clear vulnerability.

Second, the pointless re-invention of the wheel.

Unlike Erdoğan and his fellow political Islamists, the Egyptian, Saudi, UAE trio aims to draw a line under the region’s turbulent past and hopes to preserve their national identities without resorting to playing the grievance card, or dwell on past calamities. It understands that the era of the caliphates with its past glory has gone. It focuses instead on luring its public with more sober policies that do not bank on emotionalism to win hearts and minds.

Third, fighting jihadism, instead of advocating it.

The Turkish president sees most Islamist militias as victims of their own circumstances, and using the term “jihad” consistently. On the contrary, the Egyptian, Saudi, Emirati trio are willing to acknowledge the link between radicalism and religion, pledging to fight radicalism. That does not mean that their model is secular, far from it. Instead of Islamism, they offer the Arab public an eclectic conservative autocratic model, less overt in embracing religion, and more tolerant to some elements of secularism and liberalism.

In short, what Egypt is experiencing this month is not an election, but a referendum on a ruling model that stands against an Islamist Turkish model. The Turkish president may cry “coup” when he criticises his Egyptian nemesis, but as long as he continues to be blunt about his regional ambitions, Egyptians, and the wider Arab public, will feel they have no option but to stick to their autocratic president and abandon, albeit temporarily, their dream for democracy.