Elections, A Favorite Prop For Strongmen

Even the most anti-democratic election can reveal much about the system.

Rally at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
Rally at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
Amro Ali

CAIRO — Why would Egypt waste tens of millions of pounds on posters and banners for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, when his rivals were muzzled and no credible candidate stood to challenge him?

After all, these posters cost real money, mostly paid for by businesses — money that could have been better spent on hospitals and schools, or even the government's Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) philanthropic fund. But the costly flooding of images across cities makes sense when one considers them to be a symptom of a deeper pathology, one in which political depotism elevates the ruler's will and passion over rational action and debate and scuffles public welfare by turning the citizenry into a homogenous mass without any real representation. But even the most anti-democratic election can reveal much about the system and its key players.

Rigged elections come in all varieties: ballot-stuffing, the arrest of opposition figures, intimidation of opposition supporters and miscounting of votes, among other imaginative techniques. Yet at the heart of it all remains a consistent feature: the regime views elections not as an institutionalized mechanism within an accountable governance process, but as a carefully orchestrated event wrapped in a spectacle to reinforce the regime's strength and test the oppositional waters.

They're a safety valve to manage threats.

By the very nature of their positions, authoritarian leaders project extreme insecurity, as their legitimacy is not reaped from popular representation and democratic accountability, but from the support of elites and the security establishment. This type of support is extremely precarious, as it is not only suspended above responsible political cycles, but also makes for potentially messy endings such as coups, revolutions and imprisonment. Therefore, elections are often a safety valve to manage threats.

Such elections offer a "dignified" way for presidents to purge strong popular supporters who can emerge as a threat (even if their staunch loyalty was never in question) and reshuffle Cabinet ministers. This can give the illusion to the public that a reset is taking place, and that economic problems should be blamed solely on such ousted ministers, not the president. Elections signal to supporters why they need to be co-opted, and to opponents that broad support for the regime invites further crackdowns. The post-election period often sees security apparatuses reorganize to intimidate real and potential opponents. This is made possible in the first place because an election enables the regime to test the strength of its opposition and to learn more about them. In an ironic twist elections can prolong dictatorships.

Elections signal to domestic and international audiences that a "popular mandate" has been renewed, and the establishment is united behind the head of state in question, so foreign leaders need to primarily deal with the president, not the defense minister or to flirt with opposition figures. Also, it is slightly more compelling (albeit still comical) for a president to say, "My people support me and that's why I won the recent election," rather than just mouthing a vague, "My people support me" platitude. It is for this reason that authoritarian figures can often end up detached from the public. With the Arab revolutions as the backdrop, the idea of not touching base with the public is unsettling for many leaders. But rather than gain legitimate consent, which is not guaranteed, they would still prefer to manufacture it.

But staged elections also come with a huge risk. According to a University of Oslo study, 50% of regime breakdowns or "dictatorship deaths' have occurred during an election year. This is because elections act as a meeting point on which oppositional individuals and groups can focus their attention. Therefore, elections enable coordination and amplify certain voices.

Not one of my jokes

In effect, the election resolves the "coordination problem" that usually plagues oppositional actors at other moments. They also reveal a regime's vulnerability. A surprising result that shows a loss for the ruling party would lead the people to believe they had overestimated the regime's strength. Empty voting stations and short voting queues can prove embarrassing enough to break the spell of a leader's indomitability and allay the fears of activists. This was demonstrated in the 2014 Egyptian presidential election, which sent pro-regime media anchors into a frenzy of begging citizens to vote and the authorities had to extend voting by another two days. Elections unleash forces that cannot always be anticipated or controlled.

Biographers of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser note that he was obsessed with jokes being made about him and was briefed daily about the latest jokes in circulation. Egyptian humor seems to spare nothing, including ancient Egyptian statues who changed confessions about which historical dynasty they were from — under Nasser's torture. According to writer Anthony McDermott, one account narrates how Nasser, unusually, intervened in a particular instance in the 1960s when mocked for his near 100% referendum victories. The jester in question was brought before Nasser, who reprimanded him and reminded him of his achievements and popularity by adding, "And remember, I was elected by 99 percent of the electorate." The man replied, "I swear, this was not one of my jokes."

If this anecdote can perhaps illuminate something, it is that the peak charade — the "election" — in a regime's lifespan can often be its most vulnerable moment.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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