Egypt and Jordan are less free and more authoritarian today than when they signed their peace treaties with Israel, according to Freedom House’s data. Will we see the same development with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan?
Israel’s recent normalization and peace agreements with three Arab states follow a trend that has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade and a half, that of the authoritarian peace. In the world we are living in today, democracy is having a tough time. Freedom House’s flagship publication, the “Freedom in the World 2020”, found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. According to V-Dem’s latest report, the majority of the world’s states are no longer democracies and only 46 percent of the world’s population are now living in electoral and liberal democracies. At the same time, we also live in a world where wars and battle-deaths are at historically low levels, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP). The overarching conclusion of the UCDP’s report from 2019 was that the “continuing decline in battle-deaths lends support to the claim that we live in an increasingly peaceful world”. Similar arguments were heard repeatedly over the past decade, most notably from Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling.
Israel’s recent peace and normalization agreements with three of the world’s most authoritarian states fit perfectly into the narrative of the new authoritarian peace. In the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, there were no mentioning of democracy and human rights. To make the situation worse, Israeli spyware technology is reportedly used to monitor dissidents in these two countries, thereby further contributing to increased autocratization and human rights abuses. The normalization agreement with Sudan does include references to democracy promotion, but a recent poll found that only 13% of the population in Sudan supported normalization with Israel. 79% were against.
As more Arab countries seem to be following the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, it is worth highlighting some of the lessons from Israel’s previous peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, which were also clear examples of authoritarian peace agreements. The first lesson is that while Egypt and Jordan have kept the peace with Israel, both are less free and more authoritarian today than when they signed the peace agreements with Israel, according to Freedom House’s data. Second, billions of dollars in US security assistance to Egypt and Jordan have not been beneficial to their democratic development. Finally, the fragility of this authoritarian peace can clearly be seen in crisis situations such as when protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo in 2011 or in Jordan’s furious reactions to Israel’s annexation plan. While Israel has benefitted tremendously from these two peace agreements, the same cannot really be said of Egypt and Jordan. While Israel has benefitted tremendously from these two peace agreements, the same cannot really be said of Egypt and Jordan.
It is certainly possible that Israel’s new agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan will be warmer than the agreements with Egypt and Jordan. The UAE and Bahrain are geographically more distant from Israel and have not been directly affected by previous wars with Israel in terms of casualties, material damage, refugees etc. They are also much richer than Egypt and Jordan, which should allow for cooperation on a more equal basis. The fact that Israel and the UAE have agreed on opening up no less than 28 weekly flights between them is an encouraging sign. So is the fact that both the UAE and Bahrain seem to be taking the Holocaust and questions of anti-Semitism much more seriously than the Palestinians ever have done.
The Middle East and the Arab world are now at the beginning of a process where many different future scenarios are possible, and no analyst can predict where these normalization and peace agreements will stand twenty years from now. Right now, they seem to be following the logic of domino theory: the more countries that recognize Israel, the easier it gets for the remainders to follow. But as new agreements are being signed at a rapid pace, critical questions need to be raised as to what kind of normalization and peace that is being made between Israel and the Arab world? Will the agreements lead to a better future in terms of freedom, democracy, and human rights? How sustainable are these agreements in the long term if there is little public support for them? Will the Arab world or Israel for that matter really benefit from the increased militarization of the region that Trump seems to be planning with the sales of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE and others? These are the questions we all need to ask ourselves at this moment of rapid and radical change in the Middle East and the Arab world.
Anders Persson is a political scientist at Linnaeus University, Sweden, specializing in EU-Israel/Palestine relations. His new book, EU Diplomacy and the Israeli-Arab Conflict, 1967–2019, has just been published by Edinburgh University Press. Twitter: @82AndersPersson