For a while, the Egyptians thought that the era of factious elections had become a thing of the past. For a while, they thought that they would never again see a president “win” an election with more than 95 percent of the vote. However, the recent presidential elections, held between March 26–28, proved them wrong. Following the coup of 2013, the revenant authoritarians seem to be determined to erase all the gains of the betrayed January Revolution: free and fair elections, vibrant partisan politics, and the peaceful devolution of power have all been scrapped. They have even attempted to go beyond the period of limited liberalization of the late 1990s and early 2000s and restored the traditional military authoritarianism of 1960s Egypt.

Seven years after the Arab Spring, authoritarian regimes in the region have emerged triumphant. However, this was achieved at an extremely high cost. The effort to hold and reverse the wave of democratization in the Arab world has cost hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries, and millions of displacements. In the end, the counter-revolution camp, consisting of the conservative Arab monarchies and military juntas, has succeeded in reasserting authoritarianism. Nevertheless, this emerging authoritarianism is notably different from that of the pre-Arab Spring era.

Two main features can be observed in this resurgent authoritarianism in the Arab world. Firstly, it shows an increasingly ‘sultanistic’ nature – in the Weberian sense. Of course, having an autocratic ruler at the heart of the authoritarian regime was a prominent feature of the pre-Arab Spring regimes. Yet, the new autocrats in the Arab world seem to be keen to abandon or – at least – to weaken any of the institutional arrangements of authoritarianism, either in the form of a party or a ruling family. Unlike Mubarak, who relied mainly on the National Democratic Party for recruitment, campaigning, and mobilization, Sisi is reluctant to create a political party. Instead, he depends directly on the state bureaucracy and the military to serve the functions of a party. Mohammed bin Salman, to take another example, has successfully gotten rid of all strong ‘power centers’ in the Saudi royal family and, unlike his predecessors, decided to cancel the long-lasting ‘power distribution formula’ within the Saud family.

Secondly, the new autocrats show a reckless ‘who cares?’ attitude. Following Machiavelli’s advice, they do not let any constraints stop them from consolidating their power. This is clear when we see how Mohammed bin Salman has targeted members of the royal family and messed around with the strong Wahhabi traditions in his country. In Sisi’s Egypt also, authoritarianism has shamelessly shown its ugly face. It has become common to see all public and private newspapers having exactly the same headlines, demonstrating the full control of the censors over the media, or to witness a story of brutal torture like the tragic murder of Giulio Regeni. The presidential elections of 2018 were another show of authoritarianism. In these “so-called” elections, all hopeful candidates were either sent to jail or forced to withdraw. Literally at the last moment, a pro-Sisi politician was “cast” to play the role of a presidential candidate. The whole electoral scene was meant to be a show of celebration and appreciation for the benevolent dictator.

This indiscretion and recklessness reflects how post-Arab Spring authoritarianism feels unchallenged. Many domestic and international transformations have left them feeling confident. Domestically, Arab peoples are simply tired, disappointed, and scared to death of the barbaric crimes of ISIS and other militant groups as well as autocratic regimes such as the Baath Party of Syria. In such conditions, the reemerging authoritarianism easily blackmails people into trading their freedoms for stability and security. Internationally, the global rise of illiberalism led by China and Russia boosts the indiscreet autocracy in the region. On the other hand, America is distracted with the Trump administration and the European Union is busy with Brexit, the immigration crisis, and resurgent ultra-nationalism, so the West cannot care less about the democratic cause in the Arab world.

It is unclear for how long this arrogant authoritarianism will remain hegemonic. Pushing things too far and too fast is expected to create a strong backlash. Furthermore, authoritarianism usually draws its legitimacy from its efficiency. But, in the case of Egypt, for instance, the authoritarian regime seems to be fierce rather than strong, in Nazih Ayubi’s terms. It practices a high degree of brutality and violence to crush any opposition but, at the same time, it is terribly incapable of delivering decent social services or inducing any economic improvement. Such impotent authoritarianism cannot proceed very far, and unless it gives up its indiscretion and acquires some responsibility, the coming backlash will be fatally devastating to the whole region.