In December, I argued that Donald Trump was acting in a manor worryingly reminiscent of numerous Arab dictators. In particular, I noted the way he promoted family members to positions of power, blurred the lines between his business interests and political office, and sought to combat, coerce and circumvent the media. Since taking office on January 20, Donald Trump’s resemblance to the autocrats of the Arab world has only strengthened. And it’s not just because he wanted his inaugural parade to feature tanks and missile launchers.
The exploitation of political power for the financial gain of a ruler’s family and friends is endemic to autocracies, especially in the Arab world. So far, Donald Trump is following the kleptocratic playbook.
Despite promises to the contrary, Trump remains closely tied to his business empire. Recently released records show that the trust established by Trump, which is meant to prevent conflicts of interest, is holding assets for the “exclusive benefit of the president,” according to The New York Times. The trust is also under Trump’s Social Security number. Furthermore, Trump receives reports on profits and losses from the trust and retains power to revoke the authority of the trustees, if he is dissatisfied with their performance. In other words, Trump retains significant control over his business empire and, therefore, has the potential to exploit his political power to benefit his bottom line.
Trump seems intent on ensuring that his closest family and friends also benefit financially from his power. After Trump took office, the official White House website advertised Melania Trump’s modeling and jewelry line. More recently, Trump attacked Nordstrom for removing his daughter’s clothing line. While meeting with his economic advisors, Trump stated that regulation on Wall Street banks ought to be lifted because his “friends… can’t borrow money,” according to The Hill.
On top of all this, some suspicious mixing of public funds for private profits has occurred already. Eric Trump recently went on a business trip to Uruguay that cost nearly $100,000 of public funds in Secret Service protection.
The administration’s attempt to strong-arm the media into adopting its narratives and censor critical coverage also has dangerous precedents in the Middle East. Egyptian President Abdel Fateh al-Sisi’s war on journalism has led to widespread self-censorship within the Egyptian media and a near-complete adherence to regime narratives. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has jailed dozens of journalists and has closed hundreds of news outlets, was particularly excited to see Trump scold CNN in his pre-inauguration press conference.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer seems to have taken up the role of regime sycophant in the mold of “Comical Ali”, Saddam Hussein’s information minister during the 2003 Iraq invasion, lying about crowd sizes whilst simultaneously accusing the media of dishonesty. Like his Saddam-era counterpart, Spicer has been widely ridiculed, but his combative relationship with the media is yet another aspect of Trump’s worrying assault on the credibility of the press.
The travel ban on immigration from seven Muslim majority countries mirrors similar efforts in Arab autocracies. Sisi has, for example, closed Egypt’s border with Gaza and built a buffer zone in the area to curb the supposed threat to Egyptian security from Gaza’s Palestinian population. Jordan, similarly, has banned the entry of Palestinian refugees from Syria because of alleged threats to the country’s demographic balance.
As The New York Times has noted, these Arab Muslim autocracies have been “conspicuously silent” on the ban, likely because they recognize its similarity to their own policies. Trump even pointed to “certain Middle-Eastern [sic]” countries on Twitter to defend his travel ban, stating that “they know if certain people are allowed in it’s death & destruction.” Iyad al-Baghdadi, a Palestinian Arab Spring activist who was deported from the UAE, also noted on Twitter the strong similarities between Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the ban and Arab dictators who “think they are the country and the country is them.”
Additionally, Trump’s administration seems to be mulling the idea of designating the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s sworn enemy, a terrorist organization. Egypt, along with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has already labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has reportedly been pressuring Trump to do the same. Such an action would be a powerful weapon for all these autocratic rulers, Trump included, in their attempts to squash internal dissent.
Finally, the elevation of Steve Bannon to the National Security Council is reminiscent of practices undertaken in the Arab world’s autocratic governments. The creation of a security apparatus that is solely loyal to the leader and acts independently from the rest of the military is a common strategy for maintaining power in Arab autocracies. It has been manifested in units like Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard and Syria’s Fourth Armored Brigade, which were designed to protect the autocrat from any internal threats. While appointing Bannon to the council is nowhere near as severe as these examples, it does represent a similar belief that the military and security apparatus need to be watched by those whose loyalty to the president cannot be questioned.
Just as Trump draws inspiration from authoritarians in the Middle East and the world over, these strongmen seem to feel emboldened by Trump. While Trump still has a ways to go before he reaches their levels of power, the signs and similarities are worrying and must be resisted at every turn.