For Arabs, a bad 2013 leaves little hope for 2014
For the most part, Arabs will be happy to see the back of 2013, as the year was marked by violence and political turmoil
For the most part, Arabs will be happy to see the back of 2013, as the year was marked by violence, political turmoil, human rights abuses, economic decline, social division and public discontent throughout much of the region.
“I would say good riddance 2013, because it was a bad year for human rights and freedom around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, and a good year for despots and the perpetrators of mass killings,” wrote Hisham Melhem, the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC.
The problem is, there is no indication that the situation will improve in 2014. In some countries, things are almost certain to deteriorate further. “Never believe things can’t get worse in the Middle East,” wrote Bill Neely, international editor for Britain’s ITV News. “The story of 2013 is that in the world’s most dangerous region, they usually do.”
This is in stark contrast to the early months of the Arab Spring, when people dared to hope that if they stood up to their leaders, they would finally be able to enjoy the fundamental freedoms and rights that others around the world take for granted.
The regional status quo is now so dire that many who wholeheartedly embraced the Arab Spring are now openly questioning whether it was worth it, and whether it is doomed to fail altogether. Long-time dictators who not long ago feared for their survival are now sitting much more comfortably.
They have either ruthlessly crushed dissent, thrown money at the problem, made just enough cosmetic reforms to keep people quiet, or their populations have been cowed by the devastation of Syria, and the turmoil engulfing every one of the Arab states that overthrew their autocrats. Coming into 2014, it is difficult to envisage any positive regional developments.
The country most devoid of any hope for the coming year is Syria. Every indicator of misery - death, destruction, disease, displacement, and so on - looks set to worsen considerably as the conflict drags on with no end in sight. Peace talks scheduled for January are almost certain to go nowhere, if they even take place at all.
The regional status quo is now so dire that many who wholeheartedly embraced the Arab Spring are now openly questioning whether it was worth it, and whether it is doomed to failSharif Nashashibi
This will guarantee continued problems for neighboring Arab states - Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon - that are already struggling to cope with an ever-growing influx of Syrian refugees, as well as the general spill-over of a conflict that is no longer at their doorstep, but right through the door.
The subsequent rise of sectarianism and violence in Lebanon and Iraq - countries that had already been suffering from these problems - and the direct involvement of fighters from those states on opposing sides in Syria, are tearing their societies apart.
Elsewhere in the Levant, the Palestinians - depending on whether they live in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or Israel - are suffering respectively under ever-more entrenched military occupation and colonization; or a siege by land, air and sea; or from second-class status as citizens of a state that openly and increasingly discriminates against them.
“No one should be surprised if a new intifada [uprising] erupts in the next few months,” wrote Ali Jarbawi, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority, on Dec. 26. “We Palestinians are living through the worst situation in years.” However, as Palestinian discontent with their own leaders is also on the rise, Israel may not be the only target of a future intifada.
Though both sides of Egypt’s political divide claim to represent and maintain the original revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, that revolution no longer exists, and both sides are to blame for its demise.
“Each successive administration has demonstrated both an inability to handle criticism or opposition, and a tendency to rely on heavy-handed security solutions to political problems... The implications for Egypt’s apparent democratic regression are particularly dire,” wrote Ashraf Khalil, author of “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.”
Egypt today is a police state, little different from that which existed under Mubarak. Dissent of any sort - not just from supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi - is being met with brute force and draconian laws, and sustained by a pliant media and public. However, the repression is only stoking further bloodshed and polarization, the very things that those who ousted Mursi claim they wanted to avoid.
With the Brotherhood having just been designated a terrorist group, people flouting a new law banning unauthorized protests, and neither side willing to find common ground, expect the turmoil engulfing the country to worsen.
Egypt’s neighbor Libya is still struggling to disband and co-opt its myriad warring militias into the national army, some two and a half years after the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi. As such, the government has little control over the country. One of many stark examples of its weakness is the kidnapping in October of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by a group supposedly allied with the government.
There is increasing public frustration at the lawlessness and insecurity in Libya, whose very territorial integrity is under threat, with two of its three provinces declaring autonomy in 2013 amid accusations of economic and political marginalization.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is arguably the most promising of the countries facing upheaval, because for now at least, both sides are working within the political process to resolve their differences. However, the situation is so precarious that the continuation of this process is by no means guaranteed.
In East Africa, Sudan’s economy has taken a nose-dive since the south’s secession in July 2011, resulting in bouts of public protests that are likely to increase in frequency and scale. Meanwhile, Somalia continues to be a country in name only, with territorial splits, no functioning government, and the continuation of a civil war that is spilling over into neighboring states.
Yemen is plagued by serious, long-term problems. These include dire poverty (it is the poorest Arab country), shrinking oil reserves, severe water shortages (its capital is predicted to be the world’s first to run out of water), high unemployment, a strong Al Qaeda presence, tribal conflict, a secessionist movement in the south, a Shia insurrection in the north, frequent U.S. drone strikes, and a refugee influx from Somalia. None of these are likely to be resolved anytime soon.
With the exception of Bahrain, the Gulf states have not experienced the level of public unrest witnessed elsewhere in the Arab world. That does not mean that they are not facing important political, economic and social challenges, but with relative prosperity and stability amid nearby regional turmoil, their populations will likely think long and hard before rocking the boat, despite their yearning for meaningful reforms.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash