In a region torn apart by violence, a leader who promises security above all else can be appealing. Three years after the chaos of the Arab Spring, these strongmen types are rising again in the Middle East.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is one of them, though he has yet to overcome the disaster now unfolding in Iraq. Iraqi lawyer Zaid al-Ali tells NPR's Arun Rath that Maliki is partly to blame for the crisis.
"His control over the security sector has been a disaster," says Ali, an expert on constitutional law in the Middle East.
Maliki has managed to construct a "huge house of cards to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars," Ali says, much of which is invested in the nation's security sector, and much of which came through international assistance.
Yet U.S.-trained Iraqi forces melted away earlier this month in the face of an offensive by a militant Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group has since captured several cities, including Mosul.
"Our army is supposed to well-trained. It's supposed to be well equipped," Ali says. "Here they are incapable of securing one of the Middle East's largest cities."
Ali has written extensively about Iraq, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt; all countries led by strongmen — men with close ties to the military who promise stability. There's a cultural inclination toward the strongman in the Middle East, Ali says.
"We've been subjected to a lot of propaganda over a period of decades in the Middle East by strongmen," he says. "By people who have been determined to keep control over our countries."
"We've been told ... that we as people in the Middle East can't handle real democracy [and] we need a strongman to bring order to our society," he says.
That propaganda has successfully eaten away at all of the institutions that could function independently, Ali says. As soon as you take away the strongman — like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, or Libya's Moammar Gadhafi — all you are left with is a dysfunctional state and people who have neither representation nor security.
"[People] fall back on things like ethnicity [and] religion," he says. "That's all they have left; those primordial instincts. So in that context, all of this chaos that we see shouldn't really come as a major surprise to anyone."
And when the U.S., European Union and other Western powers don't call out the strongmen in these nations for what they are, Ali says, it supports the strongman's rise to power.
"These individuals position themselves to become indispensable," he says. "And the reason why they're indispensable is because they're all that's left.
"After they eat away from the state, after they eat away at institutions, there really is nothing left between them and chaos," he says. "It's just them."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
In a region torn apart by violence, a leader who promises security can be appealing. And across the Middle East, strongmen types seem to prevail.
Zaid Al-Ali is an Iraqi-born lawyer. He's written extensively about Iraq, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt - all countries led by men with ties to the military. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is one of them. Al-Ali says Maliki is partly to blame for the disaster now unfolding in Iraq.
ZAID AL-ALI: His control over the security sector has been a disaster. He's managed to construct this huge house of cards to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. And and a lot of that money is invested into the security sector, right? Our army's supposed to be well-trained. It's supposed to be well-equipped. It's had the benefit of a significant amount of assistance from international forces, including, of course, United States military. And here they are, incapable of securing one of the Middle East's largest cities. Their presence in Mosul was swept away very quickly. In Tikrit they didn't put up any resistance at all. They just - the militants arrived, and the security sector didn't resist for more than a few minutes.
RATH: You've just returned from Tunisia. And you've also been covering the situation in Libya with the transition of power there. It seems like there's a trend in those countries and others in the region, of what could be, you know, called the strongman. Leaders who - with close ties to the military, who promise stability above all else. What do you think of that?
AL-ALI: Well, I mean, there's a cultural reason for this, which is something that goes back decades - is that we've been subjected to a lot of propaganda over a period of decades in the Middle East by strongmen, by people who've been determined to keep control over our countries.
And we've been told over a period of decades that we, as people in the Middle East, can't handle real democracy. We need a strongman to bring order to our society. And those individuals, who've been peddling this propaganda for decades, successfully managed to eat away at all institutions that could function independently. So as soon as you take them away - so if you take out Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, so on, so forth - all you're left with is a dysfunctional state - a state that isn't capable of bringing people together, of providing security to the people or providing services. And people are left with no political parties to represent them. And people just rely on themselves to defend themselves. They just fall back on things like ethnicity, religion. That's all they have left, those primordial instincts. So in that type of context, all this chaos that we see shouldn't really come as a major surprise to anyone. In this type of context, it's more or less predictable.
RATH: Zaid, you're based in Cairo. And Egypt has just sworn in a new president, the former commander of the army, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The only nonmilitary leaders since Nasser, Mohammed Morrissey, did not last very long, of course. After that brief spring, is Egypt just going back to the strongman model?
AL-ALI: I mean, there's no question he is a strongman, or that's what he's trying to be. But it's a different type of strongman model to what it is that we had before. By the end, Mubarak had established his own political party, which was in control over the parliament and lots of institutions of state. He had developed the police as a rival security force to the military.
All that is gone now. The political party has been banned, the National Democratic Party doesn't exist anymore. The police, now, is firmly under the thumb of the military. So Sisi, now, is a man of the military, from the military. So it's a different type of model. It's a strongman model, there's no question. But it's much - one that's much more firmly anchored within the military institution, specifically.
RATH: What've the Western powers - thinking of the United States and the EU - what've they done to encourage or discourage the rise of these strongman figures?
AL-ALI: What the EU and what Western countries have done to support it, is by not calling a spade by its name. It's something that's been very clear for a long time, that these individuals position themselves to become indispensable. And the reason why they're indispensable is because they're all that's left. After they eat away from the state, and after they eat away at institutions, there really is nothing left between them and chaos. It's just them.
RATH: Zaid Al-Ali is an expert on constitutional law in the Middle East. His new book is called, "The Struggle For Iraq's Future." Zaid, thank you.
AL-ALI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.