Opinion

Kiss the jackboot

Why fascist iconography is making a comeback in the Middle East

March 19, 2014 7:00AM ET
Supporters of Egypt's army chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is expected to run for the presidency in the upcoming election, hold military boots on their heads in a sign of support for military rule.
Mahmud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

Last month at a rally for Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, children could be seen throughout the crowd balancing boots on their heads for the cameras. This is the latest visual metaphor in the streets of Egypt and Syria: the jackboot. The message: total submission to the new military regime.

In Syria supporters of President Bashar al-Assad announce their loyalty to the government using the same symbol with a floral twist. A monumental pro-regime jackboot statue in the devastated city of Homs is filled with huge colorful blooms, while the most frenzied pro-regime Syrians favor putting real military boots full of flowers on their heads, sometimes even kissing the boots.

In the fast-moving semiotic arena of the last three years of upheaval in the Arab world, this is one of many iconic images that have emerged in the lexicon of the Arab street for the attention-deficient global press — Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, which sparked the uprisings; the “Dégage!” (Get out!) slogan that forced Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia; the tweets and video clips of the long-gone Egyptian revolution of #Jan25. Three years on, these powerful symbols of popular resistance to authoritarianism are spent, and the disturbing kitsch of fascism has taken their place.

A verbal corollary is the “terrorist” label. The Palestinians have fought for decades against the demonizing label used indiscriminately by the U.S. and Israel, but now Middle Eastern governments have seized on “terrorist” with gusto to dehumanize and make scapegoats of their domestic opponents. The Assad regime staved off effective international action for its massive crimes against humanity by portraying its civil opposition as a monolith of terrorism. In Egypt the anti–Muslim Brotherhood witch hunt purports to ascribe all the evils of a deeply flawed system to this “terrorist” minority.

New regime

Kissing the boot in Syria demonstrates that regime loyalists know they are fighting for their lives after the destruction wrought by their leaders; in Egypt offering one’s children to the military boot portends a stifling majoritarianism of the type that prevents any type of dissent. It puts well-meaning Egyptians in the company of the Syrian establishment, acquiescing to war crimes. It leaves intact the old Hosni Mubarak–era Egyptian business model of neoliberalism and military entrepreneurialism but recalls Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Cold War–era politics in soliciting Russian as well as U.S. aid, all the while redirecting anxiety onto the vilified Muslim Brotherhood intellectuals and rank and file who dared to imagine other models of society.

The Arab Spring unfolded into a dangerous lack of good governance in Egypt and a horrific civil war in Syria, so it’s not surprising that large segments of the population crave a predictable form of order and are willing to subject themselves to the leaders who promise to deliver it most efficiently. The last three years have developed a public code in which the simplest and most dramatic visual symbols are those that are taken to represent the will of masses of people in the regional and global media. The boot says, “In the choice between freedom and security, we choose security.”  

The new fascism in the Middle East is a byproduct of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

However, that mentality, combined with the full-throated demonizing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the scorched-earth brutality against Syrian rebels and their Sunni supporters, invites with open arms the return of an authoritarian state.

The new fascism in the Middle East is a byproduct of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. By practically rewarding Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Damascus suburbs in August by making the outlaw regime a partner in disarmament and failing to provide adequate support to the moderate opposition, his administration gave not only weak regional powers such as Syria and Iran but also Russia and China a green light to test other long-avoided limits; witness the Crimean crisis and China’s claims to the South and East China seas and skies.

It was easy for Vladimir Putin to cut in on the traditional military patronage relationship between the U.S. and Egypt, wishing Sissi luck in his probable presidential run and sweetening the pot with a $3 billion arms deal. Russia has offered unflinching, natural-gas-fueled support to those who represent order. The Arab jackboot goes quite well with another new piece of fascist iconography: the flaming phallus of Sochi. The rapidly developing Crimean crisis makes one wonder if Russia, with its strange Olympic flame cauldron, wasn’t sending its own aggressive signal.

Leila Hudson is an associate professor at the University of Arizona and the associate director of its School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. She is the director of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflict and a fellow of the Op-Ed Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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