Juan Cole
Last updated: 31 December, 2013

Top Middle East stories 2013: How the region has changed

From Egypt's counter-revolution to Iraq's economic integration into the regional Iranian market, here's Juan Cole's selection of this year's major developments across the Middle East.

8. Tunisia suffered the assassination of two leftist politicians, provoking demonstrations bigger than the ones that brought down the government of dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali in 2011. The second of these assassinations, this summer, provoked students, youth activists and the major national labor union to mount concerted demonstrations demanding that the elected government of the center-right Muslim Renaissance Party (al-Nahda) step down. Protracted negotiations among adherents of the religious Right, leftists and secularists finally led only a couple of weeks ago to the installation of technocrat Mehdi Jomaa as caretaker prime minister. He and his neutral cabinet will oversee a referendum on a new constitution, which is just about drafted, and then new elections for a four-year parliament.

The Tunisian economy also looked up this year for the first time since the revolution

Just yesterday, the Ansar al-Sharia leader suspected of complicity in the assassinations was apprehended in Libya. Of all the Arab countries, Tunisians have conducted their politics with the greatest maturity and sense of compromise (although it does not look that way to Tunisians caught up in the passions of the moment). The Tunisian economy also looked up this year for the first time since the revolution, with a 2.3% growth rate, which is expected to double next year.

7. Yemen: Yemen has seen a further deterioration of security. There has been hard fighting between radical Zaidi Shiites (Huthis) and hard line Sunni fundamentalists (Salafis). Some areas of the country have seen terrorism by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and AQAP tried to assassinate the president. The Yemeni government behind the scenes continues to allow the US to carry out drone strikes on suspected al-Qaeda operatives. In mid-December one such attack seems to have gone wrong and hit a wedding convoy. There has also been a growth of demonstrations and violence by southern secessionists and federalists who want more autonomy for south Yemen (which was an independent country 1967-1991).

Yemen TV aired scene of AlQaeda-claimed assault.

The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour doesn’t seem to have been terribly relevant to most of what has been going on in the country. New elections are scheduled for February but seasoned observers doubt they will take place then. Aside from intractable political divisions and some ominous extremism, Yemen faces problems in having enough water and food. A third of children are food insecure and thousands go to bed hungry.

6. Iraq: The country’s low intensity conflict heated up in 2013, leaving at least 8,000 dead in bombings and shootings. It was the worst death toll since 2008. Iraq’s security declined in part because the Syrian Civil War led to a resurgence of Sunni extremism. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria even established itself in both countries. This is not a civil war but a low-intensity guerrilla war. At the same time, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed determined to interpret the peaceful demonstrations against his Shiite government by Sunnis in Ramadi and Falluja as a form of terrorism. In the past few days he had a Sunni parliamentarian arrested in a violent way that left the man’s brother and possibly his sister dead. In reaction, on Monday 44 Sunni members of parliament resigned. Also on Monday, al-Maliki’s troops forcibly cleared out a protest sit-in of Sunnis in Falluja that he maintained had become infested with “al-Qaeda” and blocked traffic to Jordan. Al-Maliki’s unwillingness to run the Iraqi government in an inclusive way and to reach out to the Sunnis is responsible for some of the country’s deep division.

On the other hand, Iraq now produces 10,000 MW of electricity (though demand runs to 14,000 MW), and is making arrangements to import another 500 MW from Iran, along with Iranian natural gas. Iraq is now the biggest importer of Iranian goods, taking 70% of them. The economic integration of Iraq into the regional Iranian market helps explain PM al-Maliki’s increasingly warm relations with Tehran and his support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, another issue on which Iraqi Sunnis differ with him. Iraqis don’t have age-old hatreds. Most of the trouble comes from the sectarian way the US ran the place.

5. Turkey: Turkey has been an economic, political and social success story during the past decade, becoming the world’s 17th largest economy and expanding trade with the Middle East and Europe. Its prime minister Tayyip Erdogan led the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to three victories at the polls. His center-right, Islam-inflected party seemed to offer a way out of intractable struggles between intolerant secularists and committed Muslims. But in 2013 the AKP success story unraveled. In June, youth protests at Gezi Park in Istanbul against AKP commercialization of public space were met with a brutal crackdown, changing the domestic and international perception of Erdogan and his government. Then in December, a long-simmering political conflict inside Justice and Development exploded onto the front pages.

Aslihan; occupy istanbul.jpg

Turkey is having local elections in March and presidential elections in the summer

Erdogan’s supporters and followers of the religious order, the Gulen movement lead from Pennsylvania by Fethullah Gulen broke with one another decisively. Police alleged to be Gulenists came after the sons of two major cabinet members in Erdogan’s government for corruption, forcing their resignation. Then questions were raised by Erdogan’s son. Anti-Erdogan protest broke out this weekend against Erdogan in Istanbul. Turkey is having local elections in March and presidential elections in the summer, when Erdogan hopes to run for president. How the new cloud of corruption allegations and his heavy-handedness with protesters will affect Erdogan’s chances of becoming president must be preoccupying his campaign team this winter.

4. Lebanon: The country is deeply divided over the Syrian attempted revolution. Most Lebanese Shiites and Christians support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Most Sunni Lebanese tilt toward the Sunni rebel forces. The memories of Lebanon’s horrible civil war (1975-1989) are still recent enough to dissuade most Lebanese from turning to violence. But internal politics is tense and there have been some firefights and bombings. The polarization was increased last spring when the Lebanese Shiite party-militia, Hizbullah, sent troops over the border into Syria to help the regime retake the town of Qusayr, which is important for smuggling routes. Radical Sunni Salafis in Sidon rebelled against the government and were crushed by a joint Hizbullah-Lebanon army effort. The March 14 movement, which groups most Sunnis with some other political forces who objected to Syrian dominance of Lebanon, lost one of its prominent members to a car bomb just a few days ago. Hizbullah’s decision to intervene directly in Syria, probably influenced by Iran, may yet contribute to a destabilization of Beirut.

3. Iran: Iran had presidential elections last summer, ushering out the quirky populist conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and bringing in Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani is a savvy man, and had headed up Iran’s negotiations with Europe over its nuclear enrichment program in the early zeroes of the last decade. Formerly a hard liner opposed to the reforms of then President Mohammad Khatami, Rouhani now seems to want to heal the wounds of the 2009 protests. He and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have engaged with the Obama administration and the other 4 UN Security Council members plus Germany in an attempt to convince the world powers that it is not seeking an atomic bomb, but just making fuel for its nuclear reactors.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

President Obama has put the chances of these negotiations at only 50%. But if they succeed there could be a realignment of US interests in the Middle East (Iran is the second most populous country in the Middle East and has oil and gas, so could be a huge market for American goods if it opens up and US sanctions lapse). Saudi Arabia is angered about Washington playing footsie with Iran and refusing to intervene in Syria, and has been cozying up to China instead.

2. Syria: The Syrian civil war went from being a difficult struggle to being a world class horror show. Some 115,000 have been killed in the fighting, The al-Assad government seemed to be in slow-motion collapse until last spring, when Hizbullah restored al-Qusayr to government control and Iran uppped its support for Damascus, as well. Syria is 40% Alawite Shiite, Christian, Druze and Kurd, and these tend to support the government. Some secular or well-off Sunnis do as well. Religious Sunnis and lower middle and working class members of that minority tend to support the rebels. The country is too evenly divided for any one side completely to win. The use of sarin gas, allegedly by regime troops, in East Ghouta in August set off a diplomatic frenzy and almost brought the US into the Syrian war. President Obama, having drawn a red line on chem looked as though he might intervene. But the Arab League declined to call for foreign intervention. The British parliament voted against. Belgium and other NATO states were opposed. In the end, Obama agreed to a Russian inspection program. He likely dodged a political bullet, since there is no obvious way that US troops sent into Damascus could make much of an impact.

A devastated street in the Salaheddine district of Aleppo, Syria on August 22, 2013

1. Egypt saw a major counter-revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalist government in Egypt ran the economy into the ground and alienated all the other political forces. By June of 2013 it had a 19% approval score according to a Pew Charitable Trust opinion poll. The Youth Rebellion (Tamarrud) movement circulated millions of copies of a petition asking then President Muhammad Morsi to subject himself to a recall election. On June 30, millions of Egyptians came out into the streets to demand he step down. Morsi refused to compromise, and on July 3 the military made a coup, imprisoning Morsi. They then asked the street crowds for permission to wage a “war on terror,” which they received. The military had 2000 Muslim Brotherhood leaders arrested. In August they bloodily cleared the Rabi`a al-`Adawiyyah Square of thousands of demonstrators. Some 1000 Muslim Brotherhood members have died in the course of the crackdown. Some may have been violent but most were not.

Some 1000 Muslim Brotherhood members have died in the course of the crackdown

Just last week, a terrorist attack on the security directorate in Mansoura led the military-appointed government (a mouthpiece for the junta) to brand the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and to menace anyone supporting it with long jail terms and huge fines. The junta also brutally arrest leftist youth protesters who defied a hastily enacted “law” demanding that prior permission be applied for when demonstrations were planned. The law has been widely rejected and challenged. Ahmad Maher of the April 6 Youth Organization and Alaa’ Abdel Fattah, a prominent dissident and blogger, are both in police custody. Maher has been sentenced to 3 years hard labor. This would sort of be as though the Continental Congress sentenced George Washington to 3 years hard labor for protesting after the British had been defeated.

A new constitution was drafted by military-appointed “liberals” and intellectuals, which is less theocratic than Morsi’s but still problematic. Egypt has entered an era of full-blown repression. Many Mubarak cronies are being restored to their positions. The massive crackdwon on and attempt to erase the Brotherhood will radicalize its cadres. It is hard to see stability or substantial Western investment under these circumstances. Egypt’s politics has entered a dead end, perhaps for years.

It is a region in more political flux than any other in the world. It is a region riven by divisions between nationalists and fundamentalists. Socialists and proponents of the Market have butted heads. The Neoliberal preference for market solutions to everything largely has been a disaster wherever it was tried with the possible exception of Turkey (stay tuned). The sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shiites in the eastern stretches of the Middle East haven’t caused conflict in themselves, but they have been mobilized for reasons of economics and power interest in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

The upheavals of 2011 have produced some positive changes, but elites have often attempted to put that genie back in the bottle and restore censorship and authoritarian rule. They haven’t yet succeeded, and a lively free press is uncowed and eager to get the stories. As for the future, I try to remind people that France went through two republics, two empires and two monarchies before it settled down in the Third Republic. The Middle East is like that nowadays, though many more people have been killed in Syria now than died in the Vendee in the 1790s.

The region would be less salient to the US and its allies if it weren’t a major source of oil and natural gas in the world. Moving to green energy as quickly as possible would reduce the influence of the Gulf oil monarchies, not to mention that it might help keep us from being cooked by climate change.

Artist impression of street view in Masdar City

A version of this article originally appeared on Juan’s blog Informed Comment. Opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.