'Disturbing': Bashar and Asma al-Assad vote in Damascus last week. Photograph: UPI /Landov / Barcroft Media
There was something distasteful, and deeply disturbing, about last week's photograph of Bashar al-Assad casting his vote in a Damascus polling station, watched by his beautifully coiffured wife, Asma, and adoring supporters. Distasteful because even as the Syrian leader brandished his ballot paper, his military forces were dropping a barrel bomb, the regime's new terror weapon of choice, on the citizens of Aleppo. Disturbing because such a staged photograph is an established trademark of democracy around the world. It is the sort of picture elected politicians everywhere like to pose for. It sends a reassuring message of order, normality and one-person, one-vote humility. You see: the great man is just like you and me.
Except Assad is not an ordinary guy. No man of the people he, Assad is a dictator whose "presidential election", held only in those urban areas under government control and boycotted by all credible opposition groups, was a travesty and a sham. He rules because his late father, Hafez, and Syria's Alawite oligarchy handed him the job in 2000. Early on, he fluffed good opportunities to pursue reform. Since the initially peaceful demonstrations against his regime began more than three years ago, he has proved himself, by turns, foolish, craven and vicious. He exacerbated divisions and escalated the war by resorting to ever more extreme, indiscriminate violence. He is not an elected president. He is a killer and a war criminal with the names of 162,000 dead Syrians on his personal electoral roll.
Historically speaking, Assad is something else, too: a political "strongman" in the dismaying tradition of a region that seems pitifully prone to domination by fiercely driven, unscrupulous and often unsavoury individuals with dictatorial tendencies. In recent times, Saddam Hussein in Iraq was one such; Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was another. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a former general, succeeded Anwar Sadat, himself a political heir to the arch-strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, following Mubarak's overthrow in 2011, Egypt is once again on the receiving end of strongman politics with the rise of another general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. His ascent to the presidency was supposedly legitimised in last month's national elections. But despite being virtually unopposed, he took only 23m out of 53m potential voteson a turnout well below 50%.
Time will tell whether Sisi is the firm-handed, sure-footed leader Egypt needs, as his backers claim. But one thing is already clear: he is no democrat and most Egyptian voters know it. Egypt's first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, remains in jail after his ousting last year by Sisi's armed forces, along with 15,000 of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. An estimated 1,400 people have died. Sisi's intimidatory shadow hovers over Egypt's institutions, including the judiciary and media. An official personality cult is in the making. And in an approach that has resonated as far as Bangkok, where Thai military coup leaders seem to have taken a cue from Sisi, Egypt's new strongman stresses stability over human rights and civic freedoms. How he plans to tackle Egypt's crushing economic and social problems is less certain. However he does it, he is sure to do it firmly.
Strongman politics is both contagious and increasingly back in fashion across the Middle East, where the democratic promise of the Arab Spring revolts has mostly turned to dust and tears. Having failed to establish a united national government despite several attempts, Libyans are now witnessing, and to some degree welcoming, the rise in the east of Khalifa Haftar, an army general intent on curbing the militias and jihadists. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's tough-guy prime minister, continues to dominate post-occupation politics in Baghdad. He is seeking a third term despite electoral setbacks last month and his failure to curb sectarian violence. From Algeria, which has just re-elected its de facto president for life, to Yemen, whose "managed transition" is on life support, democratic aspirations wilt as new strongmen flex their muscles or old ones refuse to quit.
It might once have been tempting to attribute the strongman phenomenon to local conditions, history or national cultures. But that does not explain its vigour in today's connected world. One factor that does is foreign meddling. Assad survives, for example, not because he is wanted in Syria but because external rivalries allow it. Maintaining his regime suits Russia's purposes and those of Iran, while the US, Britain and their Gulf allies, eschewing direct military intervention, lack the means to force him out. In Egypt, Sisi quickly won the backing of Washington and its satellites because they recognise in him a pro-western, Mubarak-type figure with whom they can do business. Most of all, he is not Morsi.
In Libya, Haftar has already gained the cautious approval of the US State Department. It would be too much to say the Americans miss Gaddafi. But they do seriously dislike the anarchy that developed after the west helped topple him. The same goes for Maliki in Iraq.
The paradoxical failure of western democracies to promote democracy also aids the strongman surge. In Britain, France and other European countries, voters complain endlessly about the failure of politics, either boycotting the process or casting protest votes, as in last month's European parliament elections. They forget that the alternatives are all much worse. Preoccupied by post-2008 economic woes, the EU, the broadest alliance of democratic states in history, has signally failed to help Arab pro-democracy movements in practical, coherent ways since the first stirrings in Tunisia. Like the US, it is more comfortable with familiar, authoritarian figures such as Sisi than with projecting soft power to promote pluralist choices.
This failure of supportive, exemplary democratic leadership is even more apparent in Washington, where the longer Barack Obama has remained in office, held hostage by a hostile Congress, the more myopic, seemingly, has become his global strategic vision. Whether the issue is anti-democratic developments in Asia and in and around Russia or, for example, using US leverage to help create a unified, democratic Palestinian state, Obama has often appeared personally detached, even uninterested. Into this vacuum has stepped, notably, Russia's Vladimir Putin, whose pernicious "managed democracy" paradigm has further undermined the prospect of genuine democratic advances in Arab Spring countries. The results of Putin-style elections are fixed in advance – a model increasingly popular in Africa, central Asia and the Middle East. Putin is the ultimate strongman. His is not an example to be followed.