Foreign Policy Blogs

Year in Review—Middle East

Irrespective of one’s ideological affiliations, 2011 was an inconvenient year for the Middle East, to put it mildly. The speed at which Arab Spring brought about change has been baffling to most of us and inevitably prepared us for more drastic changes to come. Now let’s take a look at the most significant changes that took place in 2011 and see what we shall expect in 2012 without appearing like a clairvoyant.

The sudden changes in the region have been reflective of an immense buildup of frustration, distrust, and cynicism among an increasingly connected and well-educated Arab youth, who have lost faith in political and economic management systems they see fraught with corruption. Their continuous rage against Middle East’s incumbent dictators brings a key question: Will the new emerging governments become democratic or will they be aligned mainly with religious extremists whose political movements and participation in public life have been suppressed under decades-old Western-back military and monarchical dictatorships?

What started as hopeful developments in North Africa against lifetime presidential dictatorships and leaderships of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gadaffi, is slowly and clearly shaping as a great victory for Islamist parties with chances of success for secularism on the wane. Whether or not the domination of Islamist groups and parties over Middle Eastern politics will be a long-term trend is clearly questionable, but their successful emergence as key power brokers in a new Middle East appears to be assured.

In Tunisia, where the first post-uprising and free elections were held in late October, the Ennahda, believed to be a moderate Islamist party, won over 40% of the vote, securing over 90 seats in the country’s 217-seat parliament. Since then Ennahda has formed a coalition government with two other secular parties.

In Egypt, where the post-Mubarak political jolt has been followed by continuous aftershocks against the ruling military elite, the December 15 elections have resulted in a landslide victory for Islamists, securing over 72% of seats in the parliament. The two key winning parties are the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Al-Nour (“The Light”) Party, Egypts largest Salafist party that was born out of Al-Daawa Movement in Alexandria. The Salafists are believed to enjoy great financial and logistical support from the House of Saud. The Saudis are also active in Egypt’s publishing industry, sponsoring and subsidizing publications that promote their extremist version of Islam (Vahabism).

In Libya, where the revolution became possible with significant support from NATO’s military muscle, the post-Gadaffi political power structure under the National Transitional Council (NTC), is still being shaped with elections set for June or July 2012 and presidential elections slated for 2013. Libya’s Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda sympathizers, were heavily involved in the armed resurrection against Gadaffi, so their presence, and subsequent success, in the elections is expected to be heavy given their brutal suppression and treatment under Gadaffi’s rule.

And as to Syria, the country seems drifting toward full-blown civil war with significant logistical support to dissidents first and foremost by Turkey and the Saudis. More on Syria in a bit.

Emerging New Rivalries

In 2011 the Middle East became witness–vis-à-vis the Arab Spring–to a brewing rivalry that seeks to claim the leadership torch in the region. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are two key power brokers active in cementing new relationships with newly established governments born out of Arab Spring. Qatar is another emerging player, bent on raising its regional and international profile.  Qatar has used its financial muscle to pressure dictators like Gadaffi and Assad into succumbing into demands of their people while silently condoning the repression of pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain. Qatar, however, is part of what could be a slowly emerging new bloc of Sunni governments in the region with potential to become a counter balancing act against Iran.

Turkey, whose “zero problem” foreign policy doctrine was debunked by the Arab Spring, spent much of 2011 repositioning itself in the new Middle East as the region’s incumbent dictators with whom Ankara enjoyed increasingly close ties were removed from power one after another. Turkey is currently the chief power broker behind efforts to topple the Assad regime. The Syrian National Council was announced in Istanbul in early October and senior defectors from the Syrian army conduct military planning and operations from the Turkish border city of Hakkari against the Assad regime. Turkey has been also sending trade delegations to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, promoting trade ties with the new leaderships of these countries. While Turkish efforts and diplomacy, particularly with regard to Syria, have raised eyebrows in Tehran, Tehran needs Turkey. Iran is becoming increasingly reliant on Turkish trade routes as international sanctions against Tehran become more forceful and biting.

For Iran 2011 was a year marked with economic and diplomatic failures as well as intensification of economic sanctions that are set to get hardened over the next few months, raising further tensions between Iran and the West. The intensification of sanctions against Iran could have two outcomes. The first outcome could be continued intransigence on the part of Iran and the West as Iran views tough sanctions as bullying by the West and the West, for its part, views Iran uninterested in diplomacy even under economic pressure. This outcome, unfortunately, could set the ground for an inevitable military confrontation.

The second outcome that the West could be seeking from sanctions is intensified factional infighting and internal strife as Iranians feel the heat of economic sanctions and find the government’s foreign policy responsible for their economic woes, leading to the emergence of a new political force in Iran, in the form of a coup d’état, by a specific faction within the ruling elite say the Revolutionary Guards. If the latter were to take place, it is expected that chances of military confrontation with the West will be dimmed significantly.

Israel and Regional Uncertainties

With Islamist parties on ascendancy and religious sentiments expressed without the fear of repression, Israel’s security becomes a pressing question for policy makers in Israel. One question remains whether the prevailing anti-Israeli sentiment in Arab societies will translate into official policy by the newly established Islamist governments with potential for confrontation with the Jewish state.

Israelis have lost one of their key regional allies (Turkey) and been involved in efforts to contain and slow Iran’s nuclear program and its impact on the security and geopolitical standing of the Jewish state. In this environment, Israeli policy makers would find the emergence of an Arab bloc primarily made of Islamists particularly worrisome. For Israel accommodating Middle East’s new Islamists could be a challenge that requires astute diplomatic maneuvering on multiple fronts.

Best Books on Middle East & Person(s) of the Year

I was asked by the Foreign Policy Association to name some of the best books on the Middle East and name the region’s person(s) of the year. Some of the best books on the Middle East that I had a chance to read and would highly recommend are as follows:

The Shah, by Abbas Milani,
Palgrave Macmillan: 488 pp.

A detailed biography of the last Persian emperor who was toppled in the Iranian revolution of 1979. The book is written in a captivating prose by Dr. Abbas Milani of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. It offers a portrait of the Shah and his life and policies and the implications they had for the Shah, the Peacock Throne of Persia, and the region. I think it should be a required reading for anyone who wants to develop an in-depth understanding of today’s Middle East. The book is free from personal and ideological biases, making it all more interesting a read.

Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World by Robin Wright,
Simon & Schuster: 320 pp.

Written by the preeminent Middle East reporter, who is presently a fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the U.S. Institute of Peace, Robin Wright offers a different side of the new Middle East in which extremism is being rejected and women have decided to demand for their rightful place in Muslim societies. Wright makes the voice of those Muslims heard that we hardly get a chance to hear.

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace by Roya Hakakian,
Grove Press 322 pp.

A book by Roya Hakakian, Iranian-American poet/journalist, that puts on display the Mykonos restaurant affair, a true story about the assassination of four members of an Iranian opposition group in Berlin. The Mykonos affair led to the subsequent arrest of suspects and their prosecution by German prosecutors, whose tireless and fearless efforts culminated in the indictment of Iran’s top leadership in the assassination. The book reads like a riveting international thriller that keeps the reader glued to its pages irrespective of the reader’s knowledge of Iranian affairs.

I think the persons of the year are undoubtedly the incredibly brave protestors in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Bahrain who fearlessly opposed truly brutal dictators and overcame fear as an impediment to their fight for freedom. As Islamist parties come to the fore of Arab politics, a key question in the mind of many in the region and beyond begs for answer: Once in power, will the Islamist parties respect the democratic process and value human dignity and women’s rights?