Instability and chemical warfare
Violence and political instability across the Middle East have cast a hopeless shadow on the aspirations of 2011’s Arab spring, but there are some bright points
Chemical weapons: Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed in a nerve gas attack on the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus in August by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Nearly three years after the euphoria, both inside and outside the region, that greeted the tumultuous events of the spring of 2011, the Middle East looks like a very different and, indeed, disheartening place at the end of 2013. Across the region violence and political instability seem endemic, and those early expectations of democratic transformation hopelessly misjudged.
In Libya, political stability is as far away as ever. The brief kidnapping in October of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by armed militants, from the hotel in which he had his headquarters, underlined the lack of security and the weakness of central government in the country.
In Tunisia, the assassination of leading secular politicians earlier in the year led to demonstrations in the capital by thousands of people demanding the resignation of the government and prompting concern for the stability of the country that initiated the Arab uprisings in 2011.
In Yemen, a process of national dialogue designed to provide a new framework for political life dragged on without conclusion, while kidnappings, suicide bombings and US drone attacks undermined security and stability.
Most international attention was focused elsewhere, particularly on the dramatic events in Egypt, Syria and Iran. In Egypt, the first elected president in the country’s history was removed from power when the military intervened, in July, to depose Mohamed Morsi after a year of political miscalculation and economic mismanagement. Widespread protests preceded Morsi’s overthrow. Protests also followed in the aftermath of the coup.
But these were brutally suppressed as the military hierarchy reasserted its pre- eminent position in the country’s political life. Recent, if unconfirmed, reports of an interview in which the new Egyptian strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, talked about dreaming that he would one day be president suggest the Morsi government was no more than a temporary interruption of the military dominance of political life in Egypt.
Meanwhile, the unwillingness of Egypt’s closest international ally, the United States, to characterise the overthrow by the military of a democratically elected president as a coup spoke to the continued centrality of Egypt to the strategic interests of the US and to the incoherence of the Obama administration’s response to events in the region since January 2011.
That incoherence was expressed even more clearly in the ways in which the US handled the course of events in Syria later in the year. When hundreds of people were killed, in August, in a chemical-weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, a “red line” established by Barack Obama almost a year earlier had been crossed. Although there was no definitive evidence of culpability on the part of the Assad regime, a US-led assault on Syria appeared to be inevitable, even if the nature or long-term consequences of such an assault remained as unclear as any underlying US strategy for dealing with the Syrian crisis.