While Israel and Hamas traded explosive ordnance last month a friend of mine remarked that as a Middle East commentator I had a “future proof profession”. It does seem like that and even I have been known to joke grimly that whatever the latest Middle East stoush is, “it keeps me in a job”. (Cue comments below about feckless and unproductive academics suckling on the public teat.)
Having an almost certain wellspring of events and conflict to comment upon is the sad foundation of Middle East analysis. But however tragically repetitive unrest in the region is, there are still grades of change. In 2011 of course there was the main wave of the Arab Spring, leading to revolutionary upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, the likes of which had not been seen for decades. In countries like Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen there were also degrees of abnormal unrest, with varying responses from the incumbent leaders.
By this standard, 2012 looks like a much quieter year, or in some cases a kind of Groundhog Day. Many of the issues and topics I was writing about at the end of 2011 seem to have progressed little in twelve months.
If there is a difference this year though, it might be termed “The rise of the Islamists”. Across the region, particularly where there is rebellion or civic disintegration, political Islam has filled the vacuum. Representative of the differing extent of disorder, the nature of that Islamist manifestation has also varied, from armed insurgency to elected parliaments.
In the coming year or two, the performances, the deeds and the authority of these ideological groupings will provide the road-bed for progress in the region and ultimately, the resolve to move forward from a troubled past.
Although some of the changes in the region may be subtle, it is worth looking at some of the recent issues as a kind of end of year wrap-up. If only because it will offer me a natural hyperlink when I am no doubt writing similar things in 12 months' time!
Libya spent most of 2012 trying to get its house in order after their lengthy and violent revolution. Regional and ideological differences have played out in the aftermath of the victory, but at present the government seems determined to walk a middle line between the extremes of radical Islamism and liberal democracy. The presence of so much weaponry in private hands is a continued source of trouble, as is the Islamist insurgency on its southern borders. The spectre of al-Qaeda is lurking in the shadows as we saw in the attack on the US ambassador and the destruction of Sufi shrines that presaged it. Libya is the classic head-tails bet for 2013. Things could get better or they could slide the other way.
Egypt is the 400-pound canary in the Arab Spring experiment. Its size, regional leadership and intrinsic link to the Israel-Palestine dilemma make its example the one that everyone takes notice of. The last 12 months though have been a slow slog, with little real change happening, thanks to the cart-before-the-horse approach of elections before constitution. The old guard in the military and judicial strata have been part of the problem, but the uneasiness of the wealthier classes and the feeling that the revolution has been hijacked by Islamists is also important. The cheque writers in Washington will be tested by President Morsi and his backers, but the economic and social issues within Egypt are pretty much insoluble.
Syria offers the most depressing déjà vu. Nearly two years on from the original protests, the country continues to grind itself into rubble and refugees. The West’s unwillingness to step into the cess pit and Russia and China’s intransigence has stopped anything from really happening. The lack of a clearly preferred rebel group has also been problematic, meaning that the Sunni hardline insurgents have been able to step into the vacuum, gleefully backed by the Gulf States. It’s likely there will be a climax some time in 2013, but like the whole conflict so far, it will be prolonged and messy. More Ragnarök than Renaissance.
The leadership of Iraq has benefitted enormously from all the excrement hitting the fan elsewhere. President Jalal Talibani has been slowly consolidating power and sidelining potential rivals, whilst at the same time battling to keep a lid on the continued sectarian violence. This strategy of accumulating supremacy is now likely to reap the whirlwind though as Talibani was flown to Germany this week, reportedly in a coma following a stroke. With the strong man gone, the claimants to the throne will be many and Iraq could slip back into anarchy. A bitter result with the 10th anniversary of the invasion coming up in March.
Little changed in 2012 for Iran except the application of tightened oil sanctions and a lot of slap talk from all sides. 2013 will be a critical year, with President Ahmadinejad set to step down as he is constitutionally forbidden from serving a third consecutive term. Who the mullahs approve to stand in his place will set the tone for the future dialogue on nuclear development and economic rapprochement.
The emirs, kings and petty princelings of the Persian Gulf have weathered the Arab Spring through various ploys, all of them underwritten by the world’s need to keep the oily stuff pumping. Bahrain faced the most serious challenge, with unrest from its large Shi'ite community simmering throughout the year. Constrained geography and the local boys club have enabled Bahrain to deal with the trouble quietly and steadily. Neighbours like the UAE and Kuwait have also backed each other with a “Nothing to see here” attitude. The Gulf States' biggest contribution to the region has been their intensifying support of the more radical elements in the Syrian opposition. This is a time-honoured approach of letting their domestic hot-heads out of the house to go play in someone else’s street.
Israel and Palestine
Another “back to the future” case in the region is Israel and Palestine. Tit-for-tat violence and hardliners of both sides refusing to negotiate with each other’s “criminals and terrorists”. The main change has been the slightly increased status of Palestine in the UN General Assembly, a result not as important for what it brings as in who backed it. In a “So what?” response, Israel announced this week the planning of thousands of new dwelling in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the latest little increment of expansion. If Joseph and Mary turned up looking for a room in Bethlehem this year, Netanyahu would build them a settlement. But he has his own election to fight very soon.
That’s it for this year. Thankyou to all those who have read my column over the months. No doubt there will be plenty to cover again in 2013 and I wish you a happy holiday season in the meantime.