The Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was democratically elected in 2014 with 96% of the popular vote in an election with less than 50% voter turnout, only one alternative candidate and over one million spoiled ballots. Despite being an "democratically" elected leader however, he has nevertheless be swift to arrest anti-regime protestors and even journalists simply reporting the Egyptian news, actions characteristic of a authoritarian ruler who fears a loss of power. Nevertheless, on the eve of the Muslim celebration of Eid-al-Fitr, he has released dozens of such political prisoners which he had previously labeled dissidents and charged with supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Although I was immediately struck with a feeling of relief for Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy who was among the released, the longer I thought about it, the more evident el-Sisi's reasoning for such a decision became. Leading into the celebrations of a major Muslim holiday, it was important for him to give off an appearance of being forgiving towards those who had harmed his regime and make himself seem benevolent. Many Egyptians felt sympathy towards the unjustly imprisoned journalists and protestors, felt ashamed of the negative Western media attention being received by their country, so this event made them hopeful that their regime could be truly democratic and accept democratic freedoms like those being denied these prisoners.
In a similar vein, earlier in the month Cuba's President Raul Castro released a number of political prisoners in the lead-up to a major state visit from the first Latin American Pope Francis. Unlike Egypt's el-Sisi, Castro was not democratically elected in name or practice; his leadership was passed on to him from his elder brother Fidel when he became to sick to carry on. The number of protestors, activists and journalists who were imprisoned under what could effectively be called the "Castro Dynasty" is in the thousands. Similarly to other authoritarian regimes, these anti-regime individuals were accused of being enemies of the Cuban state and thrown in jail, with limited or no chance to defend themselves or their actions against a regime that refused to listen to opposition. With the Pope soon to pay them a visit and the United States recently reopening diplomatic relations with the island nation, Castro felt that it was time to let the old political prisoners go free. Like el-Sisi, Castro surely understands the risk that releasing such prisoners will pose to his regime given that they will inevitably launch fierce campaigns against their rule. However in order to gain acceptance by the international community and avoid harsh criticisms by well-respected, important world leaders, they had no choice but to open up their prison gates and let these innocent people go. The sobering realization came to me when I asked myself this question: what if these authoritarian leaders ruled countries that were powerful enough to disregard the criticism and threats of Western democratic leaders? In these such countries, political prisoners remain imprisoned and oppressed.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, despite also being democratically elected (although the legitimacy of the elections have been questioned), has gained notoriety for his authoritarian behaviour and unwillingness to accept opposition. Whether he is supporting the repression of the Russian homosexual community, sending troops to occupy territory that does not belong to Russia or jailing (and even possibly assassinating) political opposition, his actions have proven time and again, to be totalitarian and tyrannical. Despite repeated criticism and calls for reform from Western powers, and even the imposition of economic sanctions from the European Union and United States among others, Putin has not ceased from performing any of these actions. No doubt the sanctions are hurting Russia, and of course the world's perception of Putin could not be worse, but it has not stopped him from pursuing the same unjust, immoral course of action. Although Russia is a geographically large country with a robust economy which has diversified a great deal since the Soviet era, I believe the real reason for the resilience of Putin's controversial, horrendous policies lies in the growing strength of its largest ally. Putin has succeeded at ignoring American and European pressure to reform his authoritarian inhumanity because of his close friendship and alliance with China's President Xi Jinping.
Most people know that China is not a democracy. Xi Jinping, like all of his predecessors throughout the era of the People's Republic of China (founded in 1949), is elected by the National People’s Congress from among the highest ranking Communist Party officials. To get to this position, he needed to begin his political career in Zhengding county, moving his way up the ranks to join the Politburo Standing Committee and eventually, to become former President Hu Jintao's Vice President. Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, however, Xi immediately consolidated his power with the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and became the Chairman of many political committees and associations. In this way, he became more like a totalitarian than arguably any ruler since Mao Zedong. After decades of painfully slow progress in terms of human rights and liberalization, Xi has once again made it very difficult for journalists and activists to oppose the longstanding Communist Party regime. This he has done under the shadow of his popular anti-corruption campaign (反腐败斗争), which has made him seem like a leader who will do anything to rid his country of all that is preventing it from achieving supremacy. Using this same argument, he has jailed activists, journalists and lawyers, anyone who would oppose his policies against non-registered religious groups, cross-strait relations with Taiwan, the East and South China Sea territorial disputes and the list goes on. Despite the injustices he has committed, unlike Putin, Xi has nevertheless received limited criticism from the international community because nobody can afford to lose China as a trading partner. Economies across the globe have grown dependent on trade with China to the point where President Xi can do almost anything he wants without fearing opposition or retribution. Is that not a sobering thought?
Authoritarian regimes, big and small, strong and weak, still exist in many places in the world. While the weaker ones may capitulate to Western demands for reform and respect for international norms, the stronger regimes seem not to be bothered by such demands. Despite the best efforts of the international community to point out their violations of international law or the declaration of human rights, despite their willingness to impose economic sanctions or political sanctions, they need not worry because it seems that they are strong enough to survive without Western trade or recognition. Although I don't typically like using the rhetoric of "West" against "East", it seems that in the present era, with a dangerous alliance between Russia and China strengthening through economic and military cooperation, the geographic dichotomy is the easiest way to classify this impending conflict. With the help of a few like-minded Asia-Pacific states like Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, big Western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and even Canada will need to do more to put regimes like Putin's and Xi's in line. Suppressing domestic dissent is unacceptable in the 21st century, even if suppression is merely an attempt to increase unity and nationalism, because a regime that unjustly imprisons its own citizens for expressing opposition to its leaders' policies is a weak regime. Change must come in countries such as these, as el-Sisi and Castro are reluctantly beginning to accept. Whether the change comes through the adaptation and responsiveness of the leadership, or through the tenacity of revolutionary forces like was demonstrated in the Arab Spring, that will be up to the authoritarian leaders to decide.
#authoritarianism #tyranny #freedom #humanrights