Ideas

On the front lines of the fight against strongman politics

Democracy is shrivelling and illiberalism is on the rise. We've been watching this unfold for more than three decades but the sense of urgency has, perhaps, never been so great. IDEAS hears from people on the frontline of the fight against rising authoritarianism — how they understand the struggle and what they're doing to survive it.

'Under [el-] Sisi, we've reached the point where the army is actually the state,' says Egyptian journalist

Demonstrators protested against the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park, May 31, 2013, to prevent the demolition of the last remaining green public space in the centre of Istanbul. Many Turkish citizens say the Taksim Gezi Park protests that lasted throughout the summer prompted a significant shift for the country. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

In the summer of 2013, groups of Turkish citizens gathered in Istanbul's Gezi Park to protest the government's development plan for the park which included a new mall and luxury apartments.

The plan came at a time when Turkey's economy was struggling, unemployment was high, the war across the border in Syria was raging, and Turkey's longtime ruling party, the AKP, was governing with an increasingly heavier hand.

Turkish citizens were seeing a growing authoritarianism in their country: greater restrictions on public behaviour, a clamping down on free expression especially anti-state or anti-religious views, and a growing sense that only a supporter of the ruling party was a good citizen.

It seemed like the kind of restrictions and surveillance historically felt by Turkey's minorities — especially Kurds — was now pervasive and normalized.

Those protests grew to an estimated 3.5 million people across the country. The state's response to the Gezi Park protests was swift and brutal. Turkish citizens say Gezi Park felt like a moment of shift.

Hundreds of people in New York City, including many Turkish Americans, protested in solidarity with demonstrators in Istanbul, June 1, 2013. Protests grew in other countries, along with the number of issues at the core that included freedom of speech and the erosion of secular norms. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images )

Strongman meets the rich west

Turkey is hardly the only country facing what experts call "democratic backsliding."

Looking at a map of the world, it's clear in the last 30 years the presence, demise, and return of authoritarian governments has contracted and expanded like an accordion.

Despite this decades-long turn, the rise of Donald Trump in the United States came as a shock and signalled that even the longest-standing democracy of modern times was not safe.

The strongman, long associated with the dictators and tyrants of the postcolonial world, had now found his way to the rich west.

Strongman politics are nothing new but its embrace among democracies — new and old — feels confusing and overwhelming. There are similarities among these leaders in the use of a muscular, exclusionary rhetoric, strident nationalism, the invocation of a more glorious but mythical past, and the abandonment of the long-held liberal ideal of equal rights for all.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance — International IDEA — authoritarianism is expanding not just in terms of the presence of autocratic government but also in terms of democratic governments engaging in similar repressive tactics including restricting free speech and weakening both the rule of law and democratic institutions.

Hungarian President Katalin Novak (L) and her Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro at a meeting, in Brasilia, July 11, 2022. According to an International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance report, Brazil and Hungary are two of several countries listed that govern under autocratic leadership. (Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images)

The institute points out that "over a quarter of the world's population now live under democratically backsliding governments, including some of the world's largest democracies, such as Brazil, India and three EU members — Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. Together with those living in non-democratic regimes, they make up more than two-thirds of the world's population."

Rising authoritarianism 

The world's largest democracy, India, has seen its relatively stable democratic freedoms decline with the rise of Narendra Modi.

The suspension of historical autonomy and further restrictions on political freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir; the marginalizing of religious minorities — especially Muslims — as Modi's political rhetoric enfolds a Hindu-first narrative; and the implementation of a national register of citizens which has critics fearing generation-long residents of India will be stripped of their citizenship, are all examples cited by critics as examples of Modi's shift toward authoritarian governance. 

The only way forward for any society to remain free is to treat its citizens equally.- Arfa Khanum Sherwani, broadcaster journalist 

Arfa Khanum Sherwani is an Indian broadcast journalist whose work has a human rights focus. She says the current moment in India is both one of joy and fear. Joy because India has just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence — something that felt improbable at the outset. But at the same time, Indians are grappling with the question of whether the current state of India is what its "nation builders" envisioned.

"We are going through perhaps an existential crisis for Indian democracy where the biggest threat to Indian democracy is coming from the people who are ruling us."

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves during a ceremony in New Delhi, Aug. 15, 2019, to celebrate the country's 73rd Independence Day, which marks the end of British colonial rule. (Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images)

It's a sentiment echoed by Cihan Tekay Liu, the Turkey page editor at Jadiliyya.com, a publication focused on the Middle East. She grew up in Turkey during some of its most volatile times in the 80s and 90s but, she says, political and social life improved as Turkey transitioned into a multiparty democracy.

Tekay Liu adds the latest twist in the story began shortly after 2010 when the government "began acting more like a regime." The ruling AKP under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan began purging members and silencing dissent. These were followed by the jailing of opposition leaders and growing restrictions on the press.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey currently ranks 149th out of 180 countries on its press freedom index, just above India and just below Hong Kong. 

Lessons for all nations

Sara Khorshid worked as a journalist in Egypt for more than 15 years and is currently a PhD candidate in history at Western University. She says the hope that came with the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has long passed and that Egyptians are now repressed in an unprecedented way.

"Under [el-] Sisi, we've reached the point where the army is actually the state. It's not just a state within the state anymore. It exercises control over everything in the country, over the economy, over politics."

Khorshid says the constraints Egyptians feel are made that much worse given the harsh economic situation. 
In Egypt, citizens are now less concerned about democratic backsliding than they are about surviving an authoritarian regime. 

According to Sara Khorshid, under Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, ' the magnitude of the army's control over everything in people's lives... is reaching an unprecedented level.' (Khaled Elfiqi/EPA-EFE)

According to Freedom House, a mostly-U.S. government funded think tank, 2021 was the 16th consecutive year the world saw a decline in political rights and civil liberties. But people in repressive regimes still find a way to resist whether it's using jokes or social media posts in the absence of a free press as Egyptians do or it's by spilling into the streets to protest specific laws targeting particular communities as Indians have been doing. 

Khanum Sherwani says democratic countries need to pay attention to the human rights conversation in other democratic countries — that the backsliding of one will lead to the backsliding of all.

She adds that despite India being such a diverse nation geographically, linguistically, and religiously, the key reason for its survival has been the reliance on the idea that every citizen was guaranteed certain basic democratic rights. But those rights are no longer guaranteed.

"I think right now that place is threatened. That minimum guarantee is threatened. And that is why I get a sense of insecurity. I feel the only way forward for any society to remain free is to treat its citizens equally."

She points to the current situation in India is a lesson for all nations.

"Every global citizen is a stakeholder in what happens in the largest democracy of the world. So the world cannot really afford to turn its back towards us and say, 'look, whatever is happening to you is your internal matter.'

"I do feel when India goes downhill with this whole terrible backsliding of Indian democracy, every global citizen has something to lose." 

 

Guests in this episode:

Arfa Khanum Sherwani is a broadcaster and editor with The Wire.in 

Cihan Tekay Liu is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Graduate Center at City University of New York. She is also co-editor of the Turkey Page at Jadaliyya.com.

Sara Khorshid is a PhD candidate in history at Western University.


This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa. It is part of our series, The New World Disorder.

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