In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia – three countries that toppled three dictators nearly four years ago – 2014 marked something of a comeback for the concept of strongman leadership.
In Egypt, that comeback was the most pronounced. Former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected president in May, completing a rise to power that began 10 months earlier when Sisi ousted the unpopular Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. With 96% support from a 47% turnout, Sisi has a clear constituency among a populace exhausted by three years of post-revolutionary upheaval. But it helped that he faced only one opponent, that a pliant local media portrayed support for Sisi as a patriotic duty, and that the election came amid a continuing crackdown on all forms of opposition.
With no sitting parliament, Sisi now has almost full executive control. He has used it to take sudden administrative decisions – cutting fuel subsidies and expanding the Suez canal – as well as to strengthen the security apparatus.
Following a presidential decree this autumn, the army now has jurisdiction over vast swaths of public space, including roads and universities. Rights groups must now agree to state control over their funding and activities, or face being shut down. At least 16,000 Egyptians have been jailed in the past 18 months on politicised charges, hundreds of them in mass trials. And to embody the gloom, the dictator ousted in 2011, Hosni Mubarak, was cleared in November of charges levelled at him in the aftermath of his overthrow.
The creep of authoritarianism has its supporters among a population tired of revolution and fearful of a rise in fundamentalism that has ripped apart other Arab states. In a telling moment, 17 editors of both state and private newspapers collectively pledged in November to avoid criticising the state.
Such a mindset is partly prompted by the presence of a very real extremist threat in the Sinai desert. A Sinai-based jihadi group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to the Islamic State (Isis) in November, after killing 30 soldiers in what was the largest peacetime assault on the Egyptian army in memory. Such attacks strengthen Sisi’s rehabilitation in the international arena, where foreign leaders increasingly treat Sisi as they did Mubarak: as an essential ally in the battle against regional extremism.
Next door in Libya, 2014 was defined by the actions of another would-be strongman – one who had considerably less success. Since 2011, the easy availability of arms and the weakness of state institutions have allowed regional and Islamist militias to jockey for supremacy. In May 2014, Khalifa Haftar, a rogue general who once fought both for and against Muammar Gaddafi, entered this fray. Hinting at presidential ambitions, he pledged to rid Libya of Islamist extremists, drawing comparisons with Sisi’s crackdown on Islamists in Egypt. Gathering his own militias, he launched a campaign against jihadis in Benghazi, as well as on less radical groups and politicians in the capital, Tripoli.
The war escalated in June, after parliamentary elections brought substantial losses to Libya’s Islamist parties, and gains for politicians allied to Haftar, who were able to form a government. Islamist militias and their allies in Tripoli then stepped up a fightback against Haftar’s allies. The new government decamped to a car ferry in the eastern city of Tobruk, while their opponents in Tripoli seized control of the capital and set up a rival cabinet.
Six months later, Libya still has two competing governments, and a stalemate between east and west. The UN’s attempts to broker a peace deal have been stymied by the emergence of a proxy war between rival regional powers. Viscerally opposed to Islamists, Egypt and United Arab Emirates have sided with Haftar’s faction, providing him with arms and, according to US officials, air strikes. Meanwhile, Qatar and Turkey provide funding and weapons to Islamists and other factions in the west.
Across the border in Tunisia, the concepts of pluralism and compromise fared far better. Again, secularists went head to head with Islamists – but only in peaceful parliamentary elections that saw a secular alliance, Nida Tunis, narrowly beat the main Islamist bloc, Ennahda. It was a process that, refreshingly, was as much about administrative policy as religious ideology.
But in a familiar refrain, another old-regime heavyweight took the presidency – 88-year-old Nida Tunis leader Beji Caid Essebsi, a foreign minister and bureaucrat during the pre-2011 era. His opponents hope that the similarity between his name and Sisi’s – in Arabic script, al-Sisi and Essebsi look almost identical – is as close as the comparison gets.
Up and down the Mediterranean shoreline, the beaches of north Africa continued to form a major springboard in 2014 for refugees aiming to reach asylum in Europe. At least 3,000 migrants drowned in the process in 2014, including more than 300 in one single incident in September, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
In an attempt to discourage potential migrants, European ministers cancelled a naval operation aimed at rescuing stricken smugglers’ boats. But refugees themselves say this will do little to put them off trying the trip in 2015. “We know people who drowned; they used to live with us,” said one Syrian refugee in Egypt. “But we will try again to cross the sea because there’s no life for us Syrians anywhere else.”