Prospects for 2013: David Wearing on the Middle East and North Africa

By David

11 January 2013

A revolution is a process, not an event, and the Arab uprisings are no exception to this. Revolutions occur when the myriad dysfunctionalities of nations smothered by dictatorial or monarchical rule cannot be suppressed any longer. When tyranny bursts at the seams, it’s likely to take more than a few days of catharsis and euphoria on the streets for matters to be fully resolved.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb. If the issues that sparked a revolution still fundamentally remain in place, don’t bet on the story ending with a change of regime. Take Tunisia, long-hailed as the success story of the last two years. There the economic pain that triggered the revolt against Ben Ali still shows no sign of ending. Who’s to say that an aroused public will tolerate a post-revolutionary government that can’t or won’t address the bread and butter issues that finally broke their patience at the end of 2010?

The same is true in spades further down the coast in Egypt, where between a growing currency crisis and the demands of the IMF, the desperately poor majority are now staring down the barrel of another major shock to their living standards. The divisions caused by President Morsi’s destructive approach to last month’s constitutional crisis, and the evident disillusionment of the public with the new political order, could set the scene for major convulsions if economic calamity strikes in the coming weeks and months.  But if the Muslim Brotherhood blows its big chance in government, who stands ready to replace it? Is anyone capable of addressing the economic issues that preoccupy most Egyptians?

Jordan remains on a low boil, as do Bahrain and Kuwait. Visibly brutal crackdowns by any of these British allies will be acutely embarrassing for London, but are unlikely to derail its vigorous pursuit of what it views as its strategic and economic interests in the region. However, indefinite repression and stonewalling on reform is only likely to cause further and more widespread alienation, damaging the regimes’ public legitimacy and perhaps shortening their lifespans. The Gulf monarchies, spooked by the regional uprisings, have attempted to throw money at the problem. But with an estimated one in four Saudis living in poverty, for example, one can question whether these measures will prove sufficient to hold back the tide.

Last February, the author of a report for Amnesty International on post-Gaddafi Libya said that France, Britain and the US “need to snap out of [their] self-congratulatory, complacent attitude” about the security situation there. In light of subsequent events, that still looks like sensible advice. In Yemen, instability will remain a threat so long as the country plays host to Barack Obama’s drone war. Occupied Palestine’s stability will remain in question so long as it plays unwilling host to US-sponsored Israeli colonialism. With the West Bank economy tottering, and with Washington’s “peace-process” long dead, a third intifada would be no surprise at all. Mahmoud Abbas may try further diplomatic initiatives like last November’s successful UN recognition bid, in an increasingly desperate effort to shore up his domestic position.

The prospects for Syria look very bleak indeed. The most desirable option – a swift, relatively clean and comprehensive victory for the rebels, leading to an inclusive peace across the whole country and an independent, democratic government – does not appear to be on the horizon, even if Damascus falls sometime this year.  The least-worst option – a ceasefire that takes the conflict, however bitterly acrimonious, into the realms of politics and out of the realms of violence - is equally unlikely. That leaves one remaining scenario: an increasingly vengeful, mutating civil war, stretching indefinitely into the future, claiming perhaps another 100,000 lives this year, beyond the 60,000 that have already died, according to the prediction of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

"The region cares about Syria”, observe Hussein Agha and Robert Malley. “It obsesses about Iraq". And the story in Iraq is far from over. The failure of Bush and Blair’s war of choice to create a superficially democratic, client state – part US garrison-colony , part cut-price gas station – has bequeathed an increasingly authoritarian regime, allied to Iran, and presiding over a deeply divided nation. Will Prime Minister Maliki’s strongman approach to his opponents provoke a return of the old civil war? Could a new nationalist alliance emerge, bringing together anti-Maliki Sunni and Shia Arabs? How might that affect the political scene and the country’s international orientation? Given Iraq’s enormous material and strategic importance, the answers to those questions matter greatly to the world, and to the Middle East. They matter most of all to the long-suffering Iraqi people, whose miseries seem to be without end as we approach the ten year anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion.

David Wearing is a co-editor of New Left Project, and a PhD researcher on British foreign policy in the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He writes for The Guardian, the New Statesman, al-Jazeera and other outlets.

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