The war against democratic choice in Syria and Egypt

Syrians, some at least, will go to the polls today in the midst of a grinding civil war almost certainly to re-elect President Bashar al-Assad. But it won't be because they've been offered any real choice.

Syrians, some at least, will go to the polls today in the midst of a civil war

Syria's embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad has been in a brutal civil war for three years now, but you wouldn't know it by the campaign photos along a Damascus street. (Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters)

How do you hold an election in the midst of a civil war?

For one, you would have to believe you're winning that war. You'd also have to be certain no one is going to stop you.

And so the polls open in Syria today. And, of course, there is only one plausible outcome.

For President Bashar al-Assad, the best argument in his favour is one of the region's oldest — "It's either us or the Islamists" — deployed successfully around the Middle East for decades in defence of the status quo, and ensuring the propagation of many a problematic authority.

Said another way, it means freedom and stability are incompatible.

Three years after the Arab Spring upset that false dichotomy, it is snapping back into place, and not just in war-ravaged Syria.

Many around the region had hoped there was a third way, and went to the streets in Cairo and elsewhere in the region to try find it.

But now, faced again with little new to vary the same old standoff between stability and freedom, stability has been winning. Or so it seems.

The past three years of chaos and unpredictability, staggering loss of life and displacement has made stability not only more appealing to fretting world powers in the West and East, but also to many average citizens — at least those still willing to publicly voice their opinions.

Stability was, once, one of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's favourite words, and a cornerstone of his only contested election campaign back in 2005.

It was the best argument in his favour, too — until a cry for freedom impossible to be ignored unseated him and unleashed the kind of instability that he and others had repeatedly warned would come without them.

Tired of the confusion

That chaos eventually pit the Egyptian military against the ruling Islamists, who were slowly running Egypt into the ground.

After just over a year in office, the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi was removed from power by Egypt's powerful military, which quickly dubbed its governing efforts a "war against terrorism." A war to restore stability that cost dozens of lives.

A woman holds up a Sisi poster in front of a polling station during the presidential elections in Cairo on the first voting day, May 26, 2014. (Reuters)

Last week, Egyptians, clearly tired of the chaos in their daily lives, opted again for stability. Who wouldn't under such circumstances?

And now, a new incarnation of Mubarak has taken over as president — Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, yet another military man under whom protests are now virtually illegal, while military trials for civilians will again become the norm. On Tuesday, Egypt's Presidential Election Commission said he won 96.9 percent of the vote in the recent election.

Such an outcome is hard enough to believe in Egypt — where hundreds of thousands riveted the world while taking over Tahrir Square a mere three years ago demanding bread, freedom and social justice.

Seems unfathomable to see something similar in Syria.

Path to democracy?

Despite an estimated 150,000 people killed, great swaths of the country destroyed, many Syrians — if they do vote — will apparently still opt for Assad, thanks in large part to the hardline Islamists who drowned out moderates and the peaceful revolution that demanded a third or fourth or fifth way before the heavy fighting broke out.

In both elections, the rationale for supporting the status quo is likely motivated less by any love for al-Sisi or Assad, than by a lack of choice.

That's because the one war these countries have consistently and successfully waged over the past decades has not been against Islamists, but rather against any other plausible alternative emerging that might one day compete with them at the ballot box, such as it is.

That war continues.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon protest against the election of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters)

In the interim, both countries are seeking to legitimize their elections as if the lack of a true alternative was merely a minor detail.

Syria is hosting Russian parliamentarians and members of the Russian Central Elections Commission, as well as Iranian election observers, to monitor the vote and offer the expected a stamp of approval.

No Western observers need apply. No Western observers could go, under the circumstances.

In Egypt, the local press became the bluntest instrument deployed to persuade skeptics that al-Sisi had won fairly and resoundingly — despite a turnout so low that authorities were forced to extend the voting by a couple of days.

The presence of Western observers to monitor Egypt's vote was modest this year compared to previous ones, and certainly compared to the 2,700 or so sent to oversee Ukraine's election just days earlier.

Canada, for example, sent just four observers (on top of those provided by the embassy there), just days after it sent well over 500 to Ukraine.

In a statement, Foreign Minister John Baird said, "the conclusion of voting in Egypt's presidential election is a key step along Egypt's path to democracy."

This, as U.S. and European observers voiced real concerns about Egypt's election. The (Jimmy) Carter Centre, which had overseen previous Egyptian votes, opted out entirely this time, out of grave concerns about the democratic process.

So, are people in these countries really opting for stability? Do the presidential votes truly reflect the will of ordinary citizens?

The ballots went ahead without real answers to these questions. The winners will continue on in power. The status quo, defended.

What is clear is that many citizens voted grudgingly. Some maybe cast ballots hopeful that, at the very least, these leaders will consider reforms that will address the real complaints of those who had protested in the streets.

But it is only when the war against democratic choice ends that those countries can truly move forward. Only then will elections there mean something and credibly reflect the people’s will.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.