Are we experiencing a slow-motion, Turkish-style coup? Or our own Arab Spring?

Corrupting the media, spreading chaos and subverting the rule of law — it's what authoritarian regimes do best

Published February 5, 2017 12:00PM (EST)

Protestors gather in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt   (Getty/Peter Macdiarmid)
Protestors gather in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt (Getty/Peter Macdiarmid)

Writing recently in Tablet magazine, Lee Smith, who is an editor at the Weekly Standard, criticized what he called the “Arab-ization” of American politics. Smith writes frequently and eloquently about the Arab world, Israel, Turkey and Iran. In this particular piece, he was responding to the Women’s March on Washington and, among other things, what has become a signature chant of the early Trump era: “This is what democracy looks like!”

Smith disagrees. He argues that Trump was legitimately elected president and that protest is only legitimate if the government is breaking the law or failing to fulfill its obligations to uphold the law. He thus likens the excitement on the left for the Women’s March (and no doubt subsequent protests) to the misbegotten enthusiasm with which observers — across the political spectrum, I should add — greeted the so-called Arab Spring.

There are three problems with this argument, though Smith is correct about the almost universal romance with the Middle Eastern barricades. First, the refrain “This what democracy looks like!” is about the diversity of America and the demands of citizens who happen to be nonwhite, non-male and non-Christian. Second, Smith misconstrues the First Amendment of the Constitution. Third, he implies — perhaps unintentionally — that this new “American street” is not unlike the so-called “Arab street” and the images of chaos that it invokes. Yet the Arab street is not an analytically useful concept because it obscures the rich political environments of Middle Eastern societies in which there are peaceful, sophisticated and creative opponents of authoritarianism. That they were crushed in the aftermath of the uprisings has to do with bad luck, mistakes and the willingness of rulers in the region to use force.

All that said, Smith is onto something, though not in the way he intended. As someone who has studied authoritarianism politics in the Middle East for some time, I have to say that we have seen a number of developments over the last two weeks that looked and felt familiar. Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump and his team created a uniquely hostile environment for the members of the press covering his candidacy. This has continued during the early weeks of Trump’s tenure.

Senior White House policy adviser Steve Bannon’s characterization of traditional news outlets as “the opposition party” and his demand that the media “keep its mouth shut up” reflects a sensibility similar to those of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt’s military ruler in a civilian suit, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. While it's true that Trump, unlike those two strongmen, has not thrown reporters in prison, the administration’s concerted effort to delegitimize respected media outlets so that it will be freer to construct and reinforce its own narratives is right out of the authoritarian playbook.

It is also true that all presidential administrations spin the news, feeding the media beast precisely what the White House leadership wants, the way it wants. That’s how we got near-universal editorial page support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, to be fair, the soft-pedaling of the dangers associated with the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. But never before has there been a strategy of diminishing certain new outlets in favor of other, more administration-friendly voices. The Trump administration can, without stretching credulity, make the claim that it is increasing the range and diversity of reporting from the White House with the inclusion of Breitbart News and others in the briefing room; when it does that at the same time as it freezes out CNN, there is something else going on.

Turkey may shed some light on exactly what this something is. Unlike many Arab countries, Turkey does not have a ministry of information. Rather, through a combination of intimidation and delegitimization as well as the way Erdogan’s allies have been encouraged to purchase media outlets, the Turkish leadership has destroyed Turkey’s free press. In its place, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have created an elaborate information campaign. This virtual ministry of information feeds news to Turkish citizens that closely conforms to the worldview and political interests of the ruling party.

It is hard to imagine that happening in the United States, but something a bit subtler seems to be underway. The softening of Steve Bannon’s white nationalism, Islamophobia and racism in a number of recent articles, for example, suggests that there are journalists who prize access over all else. No doubt Bannon understands this. Expect the White House to continue its efforts to mold and shape the media landscape more to its liking through blunt force. Trump may not be as successful as his Turkish counterpart, but the war on the press that has become a feature of Turkey and other countries in the Middle East has certainly come to the United States.

Then there is the use of chaos as a political tactic. It seems unlikely that the flurry of unvetted executive orders and provocative announcements that have prompted demonstrations across the country is the result of ineptitude. Counting on incompetence is always a good bet, but Steve Bannon is a student of history who once described himself as a Leninist. He also has a plan to disorient the establishment and the left in a way that facilitates his desire to bring down the system and build it anew, consistent with his uncompromising nationalist and racialist worldview.

I have seen a variant of this in the Middle East before. In the mid-1990s in Turkey, the armed forces whipped up anxiety and fear among academics, journalists, the business community, women’s groups and other elites in order to lay the groundwork for what has been called the “postmodern coup.” No tanks or troops were deployed in the streets, so this coup was seen as a break from traditional methods of military takeover, but it succeeded in bringing down Turkey’s first experiment in Islamist-led democratic government.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) often pursued policies or floated initiatives that brought demonstrators into the streets. The constant protests exhausted even the most hardcore of SCAF’s opponents and angered Egypt’s silent majority, greatly diminishing support for the so-called revolution. There remains a latent anger at Egypt’s revolutionaries, activists, liberals and idealists over this period, which has contributed to the subsequent consolidation of authoritarianism under Sisi. The Egyptian officers may have been more inept than calculating in the early weeks and months after the uprising in 2011, but the effect — draining and weakening the opposition — is distinctly similar to Bannon’s apparent objective in the United States now.

More than anything, the episode that transported me from my kitchen to the Middle East on the evening of Jan. 28 was the confrontation three Democratic congressmen -- Don Beyer and Gerald Connolly of Virginia and Jamie Raskin of Maryland -- along with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had with police and customs officers at Dulles airport outside Washington. The four lawmakers went to Dulles seeking information about the implementation of Trump's executive order banning nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. What befell them was chillingly reminiscent of what Middle Easterners often encounter with the bureaucracies and security apparatus of their countries.

In the encounter, a Dulles police officer prevented Rep. Connolly from meeting with Customs and Border Protection managers. As has been widely reported, Sen. Booker was only able to communicate with CBP officials by submitting written questions. It was bad enough that the officers demonstrated a startling lack of respect for elected legislators, but the fact that they chose to ignore a court order was utterly shocking.

Perhaps the police officers at Dulles and the CBP officials were simply in “cover your ass” mode. But in and of itself that sends a chilling message about the politicization of our internal security forces. Officials at Dulles appeared to be more concerned about disturbing the White House than upholding the law. Connolly, who is the second-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, promised a full investigation, but the secretary of homeland security, Gen. John Kelly, insists that no one at CBP did anything wrong, which will likely bring the matter to a close. One need only be a casual observer of the Middle East to understand that obstruction, obfuscation and a chronic lack of accountability are hallmarks of politics in that part of the world.

All the chatter among leftist commentators recently about the possibility of a coup in the United States seems a bit over the top. It is important to remember that the Middle East had not been prone to military interventions for quite some time (Turkey being the exception) until the Tunisian officers pushed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power in January 2011.

Yet there are other disturbing parallels to Middle Eastern politics that have surfaced since Trump's ascension to office. The biggest danger to democracy from the administration’s pressure on the press, its manufactured chaos and its politicization of security lies in the lasting effects of all this on politics and society. The manipulation of the country’s institutions — its rules, laws and regulations — to serve the political interests of the Trump administration will set the country on an unprecedented and undemocratic trajectory that is likely to last long after the current president has left office. If you think like Steve Bannon, that is presumably a good thing.

By Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook's day job is as a foreign policy analyst in Washington, DC. His most recent book, "False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East," was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

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